After the Guardian revealed Lord Wei of Shoreditch is unable to fulfil his Big Society duties because working for free is incompatible with ‘having a life’. Lord Wei not only exposed the sham of a government expecting people to work for nothing in an era of massive spending cuts. Moreover it shone a torch on the murky world of corporate exploitation in the modern workplace. Earlier this week Richard Bilton’s excellent BBC documentary showed how class continues to restrict access to professions and well-paid careers to all but an exclusive pool of well-connected individuals.
Anyone looking for work in the publishing, fashion or media industry will already be familiar with internships. The vast majority of media jobs in Britain are based in London and anyone lucky enough to receive an offer can be expected to work for 3 months unpaid and still have no guarantee of employment. With 1 in 10 graduates now out of work, I can recall my struggle to make a break through after graduating from the University of Glasgow in 2004.
After the privilege of studying at a world-class 15th Century institution, the harsh reality of finding stimulating employment became all too apparent when I temped for the financial services industry. While I wanted to use my creative writing skills for a living, I sorely lacked confidence and with no connections, I found myself trapped in a vicious circle of dead end temping jobs to pay the rent. Glasgow is the call-centre capital of Europe and after graduating, I would turn up every day for £6.04 an hour wearing a Britney Spears headset on behalf of the Scottish Co-Operative Group.
With my dignity in tatters, I quickly realised that in order to improve myself, I had to go down the Scottish voluntary route. By doing so I religiously scoured the internet and worked for free on behalf of tourist boards, local restaurant guides and a global university website. Eventually I quit my administrative day job to focus entirely on voluntary writing positions I had initially agreed to fulfil in my spare time.
On not wanting to let my future references down, I eventually gave them my full working week for nearly 5 months and used credit cards to pay the rent. Clearly unsustainable I fortunately managed to get a salaried media job in London as a result of my volunteering and agreed to move down south.
While I have clearly benefited from volunteering and believe it is often a necessary passage for young people to get ahead. Anyone doing a voluntary internship in London will have astronomical overheads compared to what I had to pay in Glasgow where the cost of living is far cheaper.
If young graduates want a media job in London then they will be expected to serve not one but several unpaid internships before getting a salaried position. Expecting people to work for nothing inevitably favours upper-middle class children from the South East, who have financial support or live within commuting distance of their parent’s home. This new aristocracy of coming from a home owning family is increasingly divisive and helps to form an unfair and disproportionate workplace in some of the most desirable sectors.
Once you’re inside the door then depending on your employer it is increasingly down to the dark arts of networking and internal friendships to progress. While it would be desirable to think you can progress through ability and hard work alone, I often find social intelligence and the ability to ‘work a room’ is all too prominent in making that elusive connection to get ahead. From a personal perspective I have always found the charm offensive very difficult because I don’t have a silver tongue to seduce random strangers at launch parties, meetings or screening invites. We are all made differently and the path ahead is not always going to be a fair or equal one.
When Labour leader Ed Miliband spoke of the British promise being under threat by cuts to public spending. He tapped into a deeper trend of how the current generation cannot expect to exceed the wealth and standard of living of their parents. There is nothing clever about making the best jobs only for the rich and by narrowing the best opportunities to rich home owning families it only serves to create an increasingly divided and unequal society.
Clearly there are social, moral and long-term economic benefits from having a well educated workforce and to frighten off potential students from poorer or lower-middle class backgrounds is foolhardy in the extreme. It makes me extremely angry that higher education is perceived solely as a means for people to make money.
Surely in the current economic climate our future values have to change. We should be looking to create a fairer, balanced and more equal society instead of this myopic chase of prosperity. Even by writing inside a rented box in the sky for nothing, I am still enormously proud of my university education and feel it should be open and accessible to anyone. Something even Lord Wei would agree about as he reduces his voluntary hours in order to pay the bills.