Millennials are a complicated and nebulous group of people. We are accused of being flaky, hotheaded, apathetic and unrealistic. Some of these things are true and some of these things are gross generalizations. The one thing that everyone can seem to agree on is that we’re getting screwed almost constantly and from every conceivable direction. Here are three of the most vicious:
1. Unpaid internships
When I was attending my extremely expensive art school, a friend and fellow artist caught a lot of flack from our peers and professors because he made it very clear that he would under no circumstances accept an unpaid internship. He was a fiction writing major like me, acutely aware that art school is not usually the ticket to a life of middle class stability. Unlike me, he had already been part of the work force– for over a decade, in fact. Initially, I tried to mount a defense for unpaid internships, echoing the same nonsense I had heard about “getting valuable experience” and potentially landing a job with that company in the future. My friend just shook his head at me and tried to be as gentle but clear as possible: “Work is work,” he said. “If you can’t afford to pay people for work they do, you can’t afford to run a business.”
Of course what my friend knew seemed to me like some kind of witchcraft, because he saw what so many young people wish they had seen before they gave their talents away, only to be left unemployed and alone six months after graduation.
2. “Exposure” and “Experience”
Here is a thing that I have learned from experience: your time is valuable. I am a writer, and proud to say that I have had a great deal of support from a lot of people who have chosen to spend some time on helping me become a better one. I have spent a great deal of both time and money working to hone my communication skills and it has paid off for me immensely. I have also learned that although many people can speak and write, not everyone is good at it. I have seen people with better education than mine fumble through the printed word. Everyone agrees that as an articulate and expressive person, I am an asset to any team with which I choose to work. But for some reason, I am frequently offered “opportunities” to use my skills to make money for other people, while making absolutely no money for myself.
“Think of the experience!” they say. “You can’t go very far in life without experience.”
I can’t go very far in life without being able to pay rent or clothe and feed myself, either. This is an experience that every creative person I have met has had to go through at some time: snake oil salesmen who want you to hawk their shoddy wares for nothing or next to nothing and don’t seem to understand that everyone has student loans and bills to pay. The day that my landlord accepts a couple free beers, a 25% discount, or 20 more Twitter followers as payment is the day that you will be conducting your business ethically. Which brings me to the worst one of all:
3. The omnipresent stigma of “selling out”
This is the worst one of all because it’s one that we do to eachother and to ourselves. Like it or not, you need money to live in this world. Money is the way in which our society expresses value, and when you do things for people who can pay you but choose not to, you are demeaning not just yourself, but everyone in your generation who is working hard to do what you do. You make it harder for someone to get a paying job to support themselves by feeding into an industry standard that takes advantage of your ignorance and your desperation, and you are thanking them for the opportunity to be a slave.
Sound pretty bleak? It is. Now you might be saying, ok, that’s all well and good, but these are the people that have the jobs that I can someday attain if I work hard enough. They make the rules and they say this is how the game is played. I’m just a player, so what can I do? The answer is both complicated and simple: don’t work for free.
Before you have time to argue with me on that last point, allow me one clarification: DO NOT WORK FOR FREE.
They will come to you sweetly and politely. They will pretend to be your friend. They will tell you “this is the way things are.” Politely thank them for their interest and then send them on their way. It will be difficult. You will have to try hard and work hard. But this is the real experience that they can never give you: how to take responsibility for your own life and the circumstances that rule it, and no matter how much they will try to convince you otherwise, that is one thing you can’t put a price on.