Land of the free. Has charging for things become taboo?


HM Government and Tesco must have thought they'd found the Holy Grail. In an era of high unemployment and a conspicuous absence of career opportunities, the idea that the jobless could somehow be coerced into working for the ubiquitous supermarket for nothing (excepting benefits) must have caused so much hand rubbing, it's a wonder there wasn't a large fire.

Of course, once the giant grocer (and plenty others) realised the shocking damage slave labour would inflict on their brand, they retreated quicker than a worm from a hungry blackbird. But I can't help thinking the whole escapade was symptomatic of a much larger trend. The closer I look, the more I notice the concept of paying for stuff being treated with contempt.

However much I may want to blame this turn of events on 'The Coalition', I'm afraid my glibness would be too apparent. Nevertheless, talk of internships and work experience has certainly been used to paper over the somewhat dire job market, but it's a strategy built on some of the more curious aspects of the digital and media age.

Whether one chooses to indulge or not, almost any TV show, song or movie is currently sitting on line tempting you to help yourself. 'The Artist' streamed straight to your laptop; each and every episode of Mad Men; the entire Beatles back catalogue - all available with the minimum of technical know-how and, more importantly, completely free of charge. Even in a more legal setting, thousands of apps, acres of software and pages of information offer themselves up for your delight and entertainment without the thorny issue of cold hard cash entering into the equation.

Don't misunderstand, this isn't a moan. My phone is as crammed with extraordinary services which cost a fortune to devise but were handed to me, my computer runs open-source software into which hours of development have been invested and I read acres of free web content on a daily basis. It's all rather tremendous. However, I'm starting to see the pattern and understand there's always a price to pay. In this case, it's a fundamental social alteration in our attitude to making payment.

When my grandparents were my age, almost nothing was free. Newspapers, cinema, records, books - all had a price tag. And one obtained these things by working, for a wage, often paid in cash. The job usually involved making something. Were they still alive, they'd be most surprised. Funnily enough, I don't imagine they'd feel faint at the sight of an iPhone, or Google or Sky+ - after all, they'd seen the advent of television, the moon landings and pizza restaurants. What would stagger them was the sheer volume of general stuff that is simply given away. I'm sure they'd see the perils much clearer than we do, too. 'If so much is a available for so little', they would reason, 'How does a business make sufficient money to pay its staff - and why would those employees need a healthy income? Or a job at all'?

As part of my occupation (which isn't a job my grandparents would recognise), I do some consultancy work - really just helping clients make sense of their advertising needs, ambitions and strategies. This is usually a very comfortable arrangement and is concluded happily. But very occasionally, someone in the organisation employing me will question my charges. They are puzzled as to why they should pay to have me spend a day at their offices (often in another city) or to attend a lengthy meeting (often in another solar system). After all, they have a swathe of interns and graduates beavering away in their building and they don't charge. The client has become confused about the basic rules of the employer/employee transaction.

Unfortunately, the desire of the newly qualified to work in an industry perceived to be a bountiful waterfall of glamour and fun is so strong, there is now an almost inexhaustible supply of those willing to do it for free. Work experience is undoubtedly a very useful way to penetrate your chosen field of work, but while it remains largely unregulated, the possibility of the relationship being abused is very real.

Advertising also has a part to play in this aversion to payment. Every bank holiday fills our telly screens with astonishingly similar advertisements for furniture outlets (sofas, in the main). The selling points are all there - comfort, quality, craftsmanship - but these are just sideshows. The main event is the boast that you don't actually have to pay for the couch. Not immediately. In four years will be fine. Just as you're preparing to throw the sofa away. It's almost as if the embarrassment of actually asking the customer to part with money has been deferred to a time when the whole nasty business can be conducted when nobody can see each other.

Equally, a friend of mine appears on BBC radio quite regularly. He's the go-to-guy when they need a comment or opinion on popular music. For years, he would fulfill his brief and pop an invoice in the post. More recently, he has had to ask the researcher whether they understand he charges a fee for his appearances, and it is not unusual for the researcher to be flummoxed. They assume his time and expertise will be free.

If the BBC believe the things they want are available without charge, should we be surprised when thousands of users download video games without paying? There does appear to be an incipient sense of entitlement touching everyone from the teenage Pirate Bay addict to the managers of large broadcasting organisations.

There's little point in howling for a return to a credit-free, non-digital world in which we only have what we can afford and are paid in small brown envelopes. And I'm not. The freebie genie is out of the bottle and we're all happy to take advantage. But I believe a little vigilance is in order. We must all be very careful what we give away and what we accept for free. Because, as we're filling our hard drives with movies, albums and box-sets someone, somewhere is surely planning to help themselves to our skills and services, given half a chance.

Magnus Shaw - writer and blogger



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