This piece was coauthored with Shen Trotter and originally appeared at Youngist.org. It is reposted here with permission.
Yesterday, Lena Dunham—whose character on the HBO show Girls is one of the most recognizable millennial narratives in pop culture—was called out by Gawker for “hiring” unpaid opening acts on her book tour. Only a few hours later, under pressure from fans and other media outlets, Dunham has come forward via Twitter and agreed to adequately pay all of her acts for their talent and labor out of the $304,000 in revenue from her tour. (Right on, Lena. We hope you learned something.)
We want to take this opportunity to reframe the conversation from Dunham as an individual to the realities of precarious, unpaid work and what would happen if every unpaid worker got the attention that those opening for Dunham received on Monday.
The generational relationship to unpaid labor
What is the significance of Dunham? She is the most pervasive trope of a generation who has been labeled “lazy,” “entitled” and “hopeless”, netting $12 million a year, and her face is the main stock photo used in the majority of articles about twentysomethings. How far away is Dunham from the reality of “the millennial”? For a group of people increasingly stratified by race and class, and with little in common except for our shared experience coming of age in a post-9/11 world under neoliberalism, its pretty clear she’s a far ways off. So, what the hell does the millennial identity have to do with Dunham and unpaid labor in the first place?
Though we have been conditioned to believe that working for millionaires is a privilege, history shows us that individuals, organizations and movements have long protested against free labor. Federal, state and city minimum wage laws, labor organizations and frequently popular opinion all reflect the spirit of the adage “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.” But in practice, the United States effectively has no minimum wage—just a range of pittances that come in different flavors for different kinds of work.
The estimated millions of unpaid and underpaid interns, freelancers, cultural workers and other creative workers are one piece of an economic landscape of wage theft that includes food service employees whose wages are commonly stolen, migrant workers with sub-citizenship legal standing, millions of prisoners who routinely make less than 50 cents per hour in a mass prison system that extends the subjugation of black people through chattel slavery, and countless others. And for those lucky enough to receive $7.25 an hour or more, that stagnant number hides the reality that young people are being paid a fraction of what we were decades ago for doing twice as much work.