Last summer I did a trial shift at a restaurant and wrote about my experience of not getting paid for a night of work. At the time, I was really adamant about my work having value, standing firm in my beliefs by proclaiming that I wouldn't work for free. Since then, I have abandoned my principles entirely and spent the summer interning for no money.
It wasn't in my Grand Plan to do two separate unpaid placements, but I became desperate after graduating in June. I've been applying for graduate jobs since January. Originally I was only going for positions that I'd consider a 'dream job', but gradually my standards have slipped. There don't appear to be many editorial gigs going so I'm applying for jobs that are as close as possible to the one I want - sometimes even physical closeness, like the magazine receptionist post I applied for the other day. In the interim I am working with a temp agency, doing catering work when I can get it.
I have sat in front of my laptop for weeks, formulating what I think are perfect answers for application forms. I can spend hours on one application and never hear anything back. I'm aware I'm the norm and not the exception here, and my moans are shared with thousands just like me across the country; but that doesn't make it any less difficult. I dread the moment at night when my boyfriend inevitably asks "What are you doing tomorrow?" For months the answer has been the same: "applying for jobs and trying not to lose whatever little grasp I have on my mental faculties."
I like time to myself but these last few months have been more than I can handle. I've watched so much Judge Judy that I've started counselling my friends on legal matters. I nap in the afternoon not because I'm tired, but because it makes the day go that little bit faster. My mood changes so quickly and drastically that even the dog has started giving my the side eye.
My friends from university and people I know from Twitter have started getting jobs and it's difficult to pretend to be happy for them. When I find out someone got a job that I applied for, I meticulously read everything they've written in search of weakness; their every typo serves as a reminder that they don't deserve it as much as I do. What I don't realise is that these people obviously had something to give the employer that I didn't - whether that's a well-rounded portfolio, a more personable attitude, or better blow job skills.
When I was offered placements at two LGBT publications, I initially jumped at the chance. If I wasn't getting anywhere with just filling out application forms, then surely these would give me the experience and contacts I needed to get the gig I want? The downside was that I wouldn't be getting paid, and they were both located several hundred miles away. With transport, accommodation, and food to factor in, I was going to have to spend a great deal of coin that I didn't have in order to work my ass off for zero money.
When I told my dad about the internships, he laughed and asked me if I was stupid. I don't blame him. He has been a joiner for more than forty years - he works hard and he expects to be paid for it. A client once threatened not to pay him for building a wall. What did he do? Did he thank them for the learning experience? No, he took a sledgehammer and smashed the wall to bits until they agreed to pay him. He wasn't going to let anyone benefit from his labour if he wasn't being compensated.
It's different for people in the creative industries. It seems like we are expected to work for free in order to show our dedication. We will do the shitty jobs of transcribing and proofing just to show everyone how much we want it, and we have to act like we are so fucking thankful for the privilege of being there. It doesn't matter that we have a degree, or a mounting pile of debts to deal with. If we are really serious about a job, we should be able to work it out. It is only after slogging for an undetermined period of time that we are deemed worthy of payment.
The way companies get away with not paying interns is by advertising it as a learning experience. We shouldn't be payed because we are just learning how to do the job. I wanted to hate the people I was working with for exploiting my desperation, but I couldn't bring myself to. They made the effort to get to know me, and for the most part let me do what I am interested in. No matter how nice they were though, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was getting fucked - which at a gay magazine may not be an uncommon occurrence.
The only issue I had was that I didn't learn anything. Everything they had me do was something I'd done before. At this point I'm the most overqualified intern on the planet and more than a month after my return I am still no closer to getting a job, and the money I spent has left me with little to spare for rent and food. So I've decided my days of working for free are over - for good this time. If anybody wants me to write anything longer than a birthday card, they're going to have to shell out some coin. It could work in my favour and land me some work, or it could backfire spectacularly and leave me with absolutely no prospects.
I'm trying not to be too negative. It could still turn around. I could get a job tomorrow. Maybe one day I'll have my dream job where I'll be paid for my work. I'll laugh with my colleagues and have business lunches until one day ...
So I beat on, scouring the internet for jobs, borne back ceaselessly into the couch.