Creativity, internships and the social contract

Bicycle in the snow

Going nowhere fast

The economy, like the weather, is encased in ice and going nowhere fast. This, despite the recent unemployment figures that might look pretty on the surface, but hide an ugly reality. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) calls unemployment benefits a disservice to the unemployed (hunh?) while fast food and big-box retail workers around the country are fighting for a living wage.

This is a blog about “exploring creativity in all things” not economic policy so the focus of this post is not so much the underpaid or unemployed worker but the unpaid worker, specifically the growing number of interns in creative fields.

The arts have always been a “hard-knock life.”  You don’t go into it expecting to get rich. You’re looking for contacts, mentoring and the chance to be discovered. Knowing this, arts employers—from cultural institutions to fashion, Hollywood to publishing—“hire” young, energetic and naïve creative workers and pay them in “experience” or college credits rather than actual money.

You can’t eat experience.

It seems like a fair trade, but in truth it’s exploitive and elitist. More indentured servitude than apprenticeship. Only those with affluent families can afford to work for free (especially when paying jobs are at a premium). Interns of color or limited resources or connections are, by necessity, excluded—limiting their future as creative professionals and our exposure to new forms of artistic expression informed by their unique vision.

The millennial generation is rapidly becoming the lost generation. An unpaid internship will take someone only so far. It’s no way to build a future (let alone pay off staggering loans) for an individual or a nation that needs young, diverse creative thinkers to re-imagineer the world.

Yes, organizations and corporations have a responsibility to their share- and stakeholders. Profit is not a dirty word. But beyond that, there’s a social contract that asks us to pay those profits forward to the next generation.

As creatives, surely we can brainstorm some solutions. How can ad agencies, design firms, arts and cultural institutions and other organizations join together to do the right thing for interns and the bottom line? What job-creating/fair-paying solutions would you recommend?


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