Working For Free: The Debate
In my first summer of university, I worked three different jobs a week.
For 3 days, I worked on an unpaid internship doing mainly admin work for a disabilities charity. As they didn’t have enough work for me the rest of the week, I volunteered in a charity shop for another, being paid only for the fifth and final day, which entailed mindless data entry for a family friend’s carpet business.
It wasn’t the most exciting summer but it felt great to be busy. I succeeded in padding out my CV, which had been my plan all along, and went back to university with the first £400 I ever earned (this didn’t last very long).
In today’s marketplace, unpaid work experience feels like a rite of passage. For certain industries, it is a prerequisite to getting your foot in the door.
I realised this first-hand when briefly pursuing a career in publishing, an industry where 6-12 months’ unpaid work seems necessary to land an £18,000/year role.
For all its negative press, working for free does have its advantages. As a young professional, I know no better way to secure seemingly unattainable opportunities, make invaluable connections and develop new skills.
The Case Against Working For Free
Let us start with the many criticisms of unpaid labour.
At a most basic level, the willingness to give up your time for nothing can lead to exploitation. As eager to impress young professionals, interns are too often taken for granted. Far from merely making the tea, they can bring real value to companies and often even out-perform paid employees, given their motivation to impress.
Beyond internships, working for free as a freelancer or artist can mean not always being taken seriously. In a previous post where I discuss how much you should charge for your time, I wrote:
“When you under-value yourself, you undermine the work you are doing and consequently starve yourself of motivation.”
This is another problem I have encountered in the past.
When you offer to do something for free, you consequently set a lower expectation of that service. The notion that someone is not willing to pay you for it threatens to determine how much pride you take in delivering it.
This can have significant consequences.
If you identify as an artist, for example, then resorting to giving away your work for free might prove a very real threat to your feelings of self-worth.
My final criticism has to be the elitist nature of the game.
Coming from a lower middle-class background, I had the luxury at school to opt for volunteering jobs rather than taking up a paper round or heading for the shelves at Tesco. Because I was in the historically and globally rare position of not needing to work, I had the privilege to choose what I applied for and how I spent my time.
For the majority of people, unpaid work for extended periods of time is simply not feasible. A recent graduate might be willing to work for free for a few months but there comes a point when bills have to be paid. Too often this means taking menial jobs that we wouldn’t consider “a career”. If you have family to support, or cannot rely on others, the lifestyle becomes entirely unsustainable.
This reality has a fundamental impact shaping the job market.
Industries where unpaid work experience is often required become inevitably dominated by those from higher income backgrounds.
If you have ever wondered why so many artists, actors and sportspeople are from middle or upper class families, you now have the answer.
The Case In Favour Of Unpaid Work
Having assembled the valid criticisms of unpaid work, I would like to make a case in its defence (from the perspective of interns and freelancers everywhere).
I truly believe that working for free can be your secret weapon.
As Gary Vaynerchuk preaches, the key to both personal and professional success is providing value to others. The easiest way to provide someone value? Give it away no strings attached so people have no reason to reject you.
In a recent interview with a young fan who was struggling to launch her career, Gary Vee shared this golden pearl of wisdom:
“Working for free becomes the equity that you trade under once you become great at something.”
Sometimes the only way to start “trading” is to work for free.
Far from simply providing the fuel to your flame, I believe working for free has overlooked advantages that no one really talks about…
I’m not just saying this—only recently, I offered to do some freelance work for free, when the client’s opening question was “how much do you charge?”.
Why on earth would I leave money on the table?
Low Expectations Lead To Maximum Impact
Well, I wasn’t being completely altruistic.
If anything my decision to work for free was self-motivated and highly tactical.
As we discussed earlier, charging for something sets a certain level of expectation. Without the context of knowing someone’s work, a new client or consumer’s expectation comes down partly to perceived value. This is highly subjective, greatly determined by their knowledge of the provided service or product.
It’s mostly out of your control as a freelancer or artist.
By offering to work for free, however, you lower all expectations. You take back a degree of control. With the pressure of providing a perceived value alleviated, you are liberated to thrive and perform to your own standards.
Far from under-valuing yourself (which I warned against earlier), actively embracing the decision to work for free (regardless of how much say you have in the matter) says nothing about the quality of your work. Only your eagerness to deliver.
It is the easiest way to x10 your impact without extra effort.
This is why I’m convinced that working for free can be anyone’s secret weapon. You might not be able to out-perform the competition, especially early on in your career, but you can set yourself apart providing value without an ask in return.
If you charge someone £100 for a service and provide £100 in value, they will be satisfied. If you forgo that initial £100, work for free, and offer the same value, you make a lasting impression. You gain their trust. They are far more likely to come to you for repeat (paid) business and, more than that, recommend you to others.
Working for nothing is the same as doing someone a favour. Favours shouldn’t be handed out in expectation of reciprocation but they nonetheless nurture a sense of loyalty. If someone has helped you for nothing, you are less likely to turn to their competitor when it comes to getting out your wallet or hiring for a role.
Give up £100 today and who knows what you could earn tomorrow.
Why I Wrote This Post
As a new freelancer, I was extremely anxious about charging for my work. I felt guilty to do so (and still do)—even though I know I can deliver the results.
The solution for me, personally, was to offer to do some upfront work for free. Once I had proven myself, I felt far more comfortable asking for payment. This gave me peace of mind that I couldn’t put a price on.
I have since been paid by the same client for follow-up work. But it isn’t about the money. I get satisfaction from knowing that I am providing someone with value. If you are prepared to work for free, you can get this same satisfaction from as little value as you have to offer. Anything for nothing has an impact.