Creative Industries & The Unpaid Internship: A Tumultuous Love Story

Unpaid internships are an increasingly accepted and required step in building a career in creative and information based industries including journalism, filmmaking and graphic design. It’s apparent that graduates in fields dealing in the proliferation of information or content creation, in particular, are expected to undertake prolonged periods of unpaid work before being considered for entry-level positions. Conversely, trainees in fields that involve a trade or that deal in material goods and services rather than the abstract or intangible, are for the most part, legally entitled to a wage for their time.

The prevalence of unpaid internships is reflective of a seemingly archaic ideal that fails to consider the increasing everyday expenses encountered when transitioning from parent dependent student to autonomous adult. The image of Millennials’ reclining in boutique cafes whilst devouring a $20 gluten free avocado smash, served by a barista with a glistening Pantene conditioned beard, is largely inaccurate. For many, attempting to juggle necessities like rent, groceries, phone bills, public transport, and other amenities is simply impossible when undertaking unpaid work. The harsh reality is that we have a generation of people with profound ideas who, despite extensive training, are often unable to break into their desired industry because they do not have the financial means to work months on end without pay.

Youtubers Foil Arms & Hog do a brilliant job of satirising the rise of the unpaid internship in creative fields

From a legal perspective, the website for the Australian Fair Work Ombudsman states that a trade apprentice is entitled to ‘paid time’ when undertaking training. On the other hand it states unpaid internships are legal in other industries if interns earn non-monetary benefits like ‘networking’ and ‘work experience’, are not doing ‘productive’ work and the main benefit is for the intern. Thus, there are two opposing sets of rules in place for different types of work. So why is it that practicing a trade is deemed a productive skill worthy of payment and producing or editing content is deemed an unproductive contribution that pays for itself in experience?

From an economic viewpoint the premise of unpaid internships is to benefit a company financially. By hiring somebody who has been educated in their selected field at a tertiary level, the company is effectively able to take on a qualified worker who is capable of creating quality content for free. Under the guise of providing experience, usually over the duration of a number of months, the business has earned a valuable asset.

Whilst experience is beneficial in any industry, the assertion that unpaid internships benefit the individual over the company is a fallacy and disregards the rather obvious economic benefits a company can reap from an unpaid worker. Meanwhile, the benefits of ‘networking’ and ‘work experience’ are tenuous and interns run the risk of completing a job without the guarantee of encountering paid work afterwards. Three months work can, quite simply, amount to a letter of recommendation and another stint at a new unpaid internship. This leaves economically disadvantaged graduates in a particularly precarious position – unsure if their unpaid work will pay off in the long term or if it will merely exacerbate pre-existing financial instability.

Another questionable element of the unpaid internship system is the amount of focus it places on ‘providing experience’, conveniently failing to acknowledge the extensive training graduates undertake as part of their studies. To put it in perspective, the vast majority of companies in retail or hospitality will provide paid training to employees from the get-go or following a vastly shorter period of unpaid training. Common sense would suggest that following the completion of a multi-year degree for a considerable price; graduates should be entitled to a more concrete form of reimbursement than ‘experience’. Whilst it would be easy to put the growth of the unpaid internship down to corporate greed, it is, in my opinion, also a byproduct of a more intricate web of problems that have skewed societal attitudes towards creative industries.

Society, fuelled by the development and popularisation of the Internet, has subconsciously become complicit in the devaluation of work put in to concept-based industries. This is evident in our uncompromising expectation to have access to quality news and media for free at all times. It has almost become frustrating, for me included, when we reach a news site that has introduced a pay wall for viewing articles or has disabled ad-block as a last resort for generating revenue. However, how can an industry survive in a society built on capitalism if its consumers refuse to pay for the product being provided?

The devaluation of creative work can also be seen in other creative industries, like film making, where it is a causative factor in the normalisation of Internet piracy. Whilst the ‘you wouldn’t steal a car’ anti-piracy PSA at the beginning of early 2000s DVD’s was incredibly tacky and has been turned into several iconic memes, it had a point. Most people would not steal an IKEA lamp from the depths of Swedish heaven but would stream Oscar winning film ‘Moonlight’ without a second thought. Whilst it can be reasonably argued that cinema tickets are too high and paying for media is simply unattainable, this pattern is also symptomatic of a society that is both addicted to the consumption of media and, simultaneously, apathetic towards it.

We consume more media now than ever before; it is in constant demand and always within arm’s reach. In most houses, our bedazzled Mac’s have become their own sacred entity, the flicker of the Apple logo beckoning us forth into a digital void of information and stimulation. We have instant access to thousands upon thousands of free articles, which we read, whilst we binge stream Missy Elliott albums en masse and have a torrent running for The Sims 5 in the background. The accessibility and sheer volume of media available to us has desensitised us to the amount of work that is put into what we are consuming.

We’ve constructed a technology savvy society that has become dependent on media and concept based industries in daily life, yet is oblivious to the financial challenges that underpin these industries. Our apathy towards the work put into constructing written or visual content, has been mirrored by the corporate structures that govern creative industries. It is echoed in unpaid internships, which have normalised the notion of creative industries being worth less than practical industries.

Creative industries deal in concepts and ideas, a currency that is less obvious than the immediate practicality of a plumber who has unclogged your overflowing toilet. However, social commentary and art through any medium has a profound ability to unite people through ideas and is arguably just as valuable in the long term as practical jobs are in the short term.

We reap the rewards of creative and information based industries on a daily basis. We use them to add depth to our conversations, as a means of understanding the human experience, orchestrating change in the world and even subconsciously to shape our own identities. It is time that the Australian government treated workers in these industries with the same rules and guidelines that protect workers in practical fields.