Should I Work for Free?

Conventionally a person gets a job, fulfils a task and then receives some money. Money is collected and used to spend on things. Boiled down this is the consumerist lifestyle.

Help thy Neighbour

If a person goes to a neighbour and does some work to fix their car, but refuses to accept a pre specified amount of money then the person whose car has been fixed can choose to pay back the other person later with a comparable task, show gratitude, do nothing, offer their skills for free to someone else etc.

It seems there are more options with free work, but if you know your neighbour, they probably won’t exploit you, they might help you in return (like look after the security of your house) and you are more likely to be able to trust them.

What if the person has no idea who the person they are working for is? Money comes in as a way to quantify that exchange of value. If I fix your car, you will give me £50. I can use the £50 to spend on something I need and I don’t have to worry about what kind of person you are (that you choose not to repay or to help someone else).

If a person works for free for the neighbour, it creates a nice feeling and changes the dynamic of the relationship. This is perhaps down to intrinsic altruistic behaviour?

However, humans have minds that allow them to switch and be tricky, hoard and be greedy. The simplistic understanding of money and resources is I get something and you lose something and more is better.

Cookie Making Machines

Lets say one person is an engineer and can build a cookie making machine. Another person pays him to build a cookie making machine instead of buying a wholesale lot of cookies. This person starts to produce cookies, selling some of them and keeping some. After a while, the person has a stockpile of cookies and sells enough to pay for the manufacture of the machine. This person left the realm of the consumer and entered the realm of the capitalist.

The people who turn up to work, do work and get some money to spend on consumables are selling their time because they did not create any other way of creating value - e.g. getting a cookie making machine built to make cookies to sell.

The person who works for money has the choice to spend that money on consumable things or to use it as a tool. However, if that person has no spare money after the essentials like food and housing, then that person doesn't have any choice to use their money as a tool.

An employee who works and consumes, needs some money to spend on their outgoings for their lifestyle - mortgage, bills, food, living costs. That money is indisputable. Without it, the house will be repossessed and kids will go hungry.

The risk of using money for producing a cookie making machine is higher if the cookies turn out not to be any good. Other kinds of value exchange like bartering offers more of a risk and more effort to judge the value. Someone could borrow money to build the cookie making machine but that is another story.

Lets say a person has enough money to cover all the basics and money left to either spend time getting a cookie machine produced or doing something else, like spending leisure time or perhaps working for free.

Working for Free

I (was at the time of writing) an advocate of working for free under the right conditions.

Why work for free though?

  • You want to get experience in something else where you don't necessary have any skills
  • Charity work / good cause
  • Other kinds of value in return
  • Experimentation
  • You are very young and have no experience at all

The Work for Free Rules

To work for free, a person should have a need or requirement and another person should work to satisfy it. Like the neighbour aforementioned the person who is being worked for should offer some non-money value in exchange for the work. There should be a synergy that means everyone wins from the work.

Non Monetary Returns

What about this non-money value return? In recent years, the emergence of ‘shared economy’ has meant that people have been more willing to share things that they have. One example of this is Couchsurfing where people would let others stay with them in their house and ask for nothing in exchange. The value from Couchsurfing in my experience is the friendship and the positive new experiences that are gained. There is a definite synergy. Instead of someone being alone in their house and a traveller having to pay for accommodation - pure money exchange like a hotel, the host gets to not be alone. The traveller gets to meet local people with local knowledge and save some of their money which they can then spend on more travel to have more chance to grow and learn.

The benefit from this kind of exchange is:

  • Specific to the project context - e.g. hospitality
  • Has definite constraints - arrival / departure date, number of people staying
  • Knowledge of the guest and host before the interaction begins (via website profile)
  • Testimonial and opportunity to build reputation through a reference

These are fundamental attributes to successfully working for free.


We live in a world where ‘property’ exists. Property is where something belongs to one person and not to another and if one person takes it then they are defined as a criminal. The world has finite resources and they are being allocated as property under the current system. It is difficult to do anything if you don’t have land or resources - e.g. a place to be or some materials that you need, even if you have knowledge or are a craftsman with experience. Take the example of a migrant arriving on a beach on a Greek island - no identity, history, home, reputation, support network. They are at the whim of the authorities. People who are wealthy and have land, materials etc can hire people to work for them. They can use their money and resources as a tool (as capital) (to get a cookie making machine built) in order to build up even more value for themselves (sell cookies).


In the world of finance interest means a bank can make money without needing to make the cookie. The cookie is the temporary ability for someone to be able to go out and make their own cookie making machine to make cookies to sell at a profit to pay back the bank loan and interest and sell some cookies (could be defined as an entrepreneur) or buy more stuff.

Banks create money from nothing so they have a nice business model on the go. People in this aforementioned tense situation of balancing cookie production and paying interest (e.g. being in debt) are also stressed out about this. Its also not great if you are trying to sell your finite time to pay off your debt.

Lets say someone has a farm with land and farm tools and machinery and invites people who have no farm, land, or machinery to work for them in exchange for food and accommodation. It could be a nice prospect for a migrant who otherwise has nothing but it sounds dangerously like slavery.

Working for free in this context might work (and not be slavery) if person:

  • Learns a skill which has a monetary exchange value
  • Gets a piece of the land / resources / product / machinery for themselves
  • Has space to create something of their own - e.g. autonomy (for example, an area of permaculture, or yoga class)
  • Has time to do their own work as well as the host's work
  • Has a real say over the strategy and vision
  • Is shown a huge amount of gratitude and is owed a huge favour

If someone does work for free, then the person for whom they are working should recognise that this is not an excuse to build their own wealth- otherwise this is a troubling ethical situation. If the relationship does not include a huge amount of respect and a mentoring quality to it then it is exploitation. I know some wealthy and successful businesses are always doing things to help other people. A portion of the work they do is devoted to service of society, humans and the world. Nice kind behaviour and a resistance of the temptation to do ‘bean counting’ my pile vs yours creates positive energy in the world that we hope means we will all survive a bit longer with less pain and suffering.

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