The other day I was standing behind a young gentleman in Starbucks who looked like he was about to cry. He sounded exhausted and pained as he rattled off a list of coffee orders that was typed on his phone. “And then a grande red eye, and wait did you get the vente drip coffee with skim milk? Two of those, can you read back what I’ve ordered so far just so I can double check..” If stranger danger wasn’t real I would have crept up from behind and embraced him, rocking him back and forth and reassuring him, “Are you an intern? How long have you been working for free? Can you afford gas to get you to work? You are not alone, I’m here now.”
As he sweat and paced in front of the drink counter waiting for all fifteen coffees to be made, I felt my own armpits begin to perspire. I hope they don’t mess up the drinks, I hope he triple checks all the drinks before he leaves, oh please Starbuck’s people get it right, his reputation as a competent worker is riding on this, if he can’t get coffee orders right how will his employers ever trust him to do ANYTHING ELSE. When you aren’t getting paid in anything of any monetary value, you get paid in rich and fulfilling experiences, like the one I was witnessing in Starbucks.
I’ve worked for free at a fashion pr company, a photo studio, and a magazine, until I woke up one morning and asked myself, why? Working for free is not like volunteering your time, where you leave after a days worth of service and feel a sense of purpose, like a void within your heart has been filled. Working for free is like leaving a days worth of work dragging the chains around your ankles behind you and wondering what it feels like to be a rich white man.
When I was working for free experience everything out of my employers mouths said, “Your education, time, and effort is not even worth minimum wage to me, show me what you got.” Instead of feeling inspired to work harder, file faster, answer phones quicker, sweep the floor just because- to show my employer, thank you for letting me work here for the experience, look how hard I work, I am insane! I just wanted to roll around on the floor like Nancy Kerrigan after her Olympic gold was sabotaged by Tonya Harding and moan, “WHHHHYYYY? WHHHYYYYY?”
If your worth is determined by your salary, having no salary must mean you wake up, lie in bed and breathe until the sun goes down. After “nothing,” the need to make “something” means you abandon all sense of self worth, dreams, morals, or reason, and throw yourself at any employer that will pay you ten dollars an hour- like a cheap date, and after a year of mixing drinks at a bar or selling clothes for a retail chain, or working a desk job or as an assistant and still drowning in debt from college loans, you begin to associate words like “bastardization” with “American Dream,” and Thoreau’s Walden begins to mean everything to you.
I graduated college into an economy that turned entry level jobs into unpaid internships. I’ve turned in resumes and written cover letters, competing with others to work for free experience. Free experience isn’t paying my bills, or growing in my retirement fund. It’s forcing me to live the lifestyle of a boxcar hobo, potentially for the rest of my life. One of my bosses once commented that my generation doesn’t understand how to work. And I agree, but wouldn’t you be confused too?