Don’t Let Unpaid Work Rob Your Future

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz came under fire for suggesting that Millennials living in their parents’ basement should work for free. The Governor may think people living in basements is the underground economy but it is a false economy that doesn`t work. It doesn’t work because unpaid work often diminishes the potential of the individual and the work of the organization, robbing both of a meaningful future. A better way to work is with a Contract of Purpose, one that places value in the individual’s potential and future possibilities for the organization that arise from it.

The False Economy

Working for free, unpaid internships or volunteernships creates a false economy. Let’s not mistake this for volunteerism.  Volunteering is admirable, necessary work that offers a strong sense of fulfillment for both the individual and the in-need organization. The false economy is working for little or no pay in for-profit organizations. The unpaid economy creates under-employment and near-employment conditions that have a nasty ripple effect on the general economy. A 2011 Pew Report on median incomes shows that from 1984 to 2009 median net worth for US householders under 35 dropped by 68%. This explains the additional 1.2 million Americans between the ages of 25-34 living in their parents’ home, likely in the basement. A year ago The New York Times shone a light into this shadowy issue of underemployment and unpaid work. Interviews with young workers highlighted difficult working conditions and job descriptions filled with outlandish demands that turned well-meaning talent into impoverished serfs. Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation”, believes that traditional entry-level jobs are disappearing, replaced by hollow internships with nebulous titles that offer no security and little to no money for the individual.

Why is This Happening?

The economy is the easy defense put up by both businesses and job-seekers. Margins are down, competition is up say business. Jobs are few and experienced people are plenty say job-seekers. Free work for free experience seems like a creative, clever solution. It`s not. When companies make little to no investment in their unpaid labour they create falsified margins. This double-edged deception hastens the organization’s race to the bottom as it hacks away at margins, cuts prices and investment in people, harming the future of their organization under the fabricated pretenses of the false economy. The bottom line; this scorched earth approach to an organization’s future is not very “creative” or professionally fulfilling and it’s falsely profitable for business.

What Can You Do

Business and talent feel stuck. Business is looking for a cost advantage and talent is looking for an experience advantage. So, why not take advantage of each other? An honourable way of taking advantage of talent can be found in our very best charitable organizations. These organizations are filled with energetic, committed volunteers because the charity states its purpose passionately and shows their respect for talent unreservedly.

Sure, the jaded view is charitable organizations have to act this way to get their work done. But, shouldn’t any organization considering unpaid work “have to act this way” too? What the great charitable organizations understand is that when there is common purpose and mutual respect for contribution there is reciprocal benefit. In this scenario advantage is given and taken freely, unlocking potential and creating future possibilities.

Entry-level and, in fact, all professionals want to be taken advantage. They want companies to take advantage, not of the individual’s labour but of their potential for contribution. This is the common ground of uncommon possibility on which organizations can build lasting relationships and enduring futures.

Contracts of Purpose

Organizations can avoid a scorched earth future of underemployment and unpaid work by considering the Contracts of Purpose approach.  

A Contract of Purpose is constructed on the dignity of a meaningful job description that matches the individual’s potential. The Contract urges the individual and organization to explore and exploit the talent’s potential and the organization’s possibilities. It holds a shared responsibility to redesign the work so that it takes advantage of the individual’s potential and the possibilities arising from their contributions.

A Contract of Purpose asks two questions that should be answered before entering into the agreement; what will they leave your organization with and what could they stay for? The answers should address; what elements of the individual’s potential will the work activate? How will the organization sharpen the individual’s potential and chances for a better future? What will the organization give that is of value, meaning and purpose to the individual? What will the individual give that is of value, meaning and purpose to the organization? 

A Contract of Purpose recognizes that if no value is given then none can be taken, leaving both the individual and the organization robbed of what could have been a better future. If any of these questions lead to a yes then consider a Contract that transforms unpaid labour into meaningful, purposeful work. It also lets the individual and the organization out of the basement.



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