August 12, 2010

Did you have a job as a kid?

Thinking more about the tough aspects of the real world that young people are shielded from today, having a job came to mind. The days of Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- where the average teenager desires, seeks out, and gets a job -- are long gone. I think this must be a difference between safe vs. dangerous times, as movies showed teenagers with jobs throughout the '80s, and only by the mid-late '90s did they not have jobs (e.g. Clueless and American Pie), a picture that remained through the 2000s (Mean Girls and Superbad).

It's shocking to go around today and see how few teenagers there are doing teenager jobs -- any job in the supermarket, a fast food place, movie theaters, you name it. Also, teenagers don't babysit, mow lawns, or shovel snow from driveways anymore. (I reflected on the disappearance of the babysitter in American life here.) So in the interest of setting down some oral history about a lost way of life (lost for now anyway), why don't we remind ourselves and others how common it used to be for quite young people to have jobs? -- before wimpy kids and helicopter parents both conspired to keep the young 'uns protected from the messy world of real life.

My first real paying job came from the restlessness that nearly pubescent boys naturally feel, provided they aren't total pansies, that spurs them to go out there and achieve something -- doesn't matter what, but something that most of the world's cultures would recognize as a growing-up activity. Perhaps we wouldn't go slay a dragon, but we weren't just going to sit around anymore. During the summer of 1991, when I was 10 years old, a small group of friends wanted to do grown-up stuff like work. Of course, child labor laws prevented us from most jobs, but my friend Robbie's parents asked around and found out that some odd jobs could still be done by youngsters with their parents' and the government's permission.

So that summer, we decided to undergo that ancient rite of passage -- spraypainting someone's address on the curb in front of their house.

Robbie's parents drove us to the municipal building, filled out some forms, and there it was in our hands -- our permit. To us it was like a college degree with a royal seal of approval. Every time we gave our sales pitch, we always boasted about how "We've even got a permit!" So don't worry, we're not total amateurs or anything. Unfortunately the permit also said we could charge no more and no less than $4, when I'm sure anyone who would've paid $4 would've paid us $5, boosting our revenues 25% right there.

On the other hand, the regulation probably made the homeowners more willing to take a chance on us. They always asked how much the service was before making a decision, and if we had set our own price, they might have felt that a bunch of punk kids were going to take them for a ride. But when we told them that the law required exactly $4, I think it made us seem more honest and trustworthy -- it was a no-haggle price, and it was set by a neutral third party. Normal market participants don't need these regulations to ensure trust, but when the offerer of a service is a bunch of 9 and 10 year-old kids, it could be necessary.

We bought some supplies at an arts & crafts store in the shopping center just a couple blocks away from Robbie's house, practiced a good deal on flat surfaces like pizza boxes -- though I don't think on actual curbs -- and once we felt comfortably trained, headed out on our daily tour through some part of our neighborhood in Upper Arlington, Ohio (a quieter suburb just outside of Columbus and the huge Ohio State campus). This was back when kids were allowed to go anywhere and do anything they wanted, all unsupervised, and often without even telling our parents we were leaving as we walked out the door. One or two of us brought a bike along, though we mostly moved on foot. We were only out canvassing for work for about 3 or 4 hours a day at most, so we rarely got tired from walking. Plus it was fun to see new parts of our neighborhood, till then invisible to us because we didn't have any friends on that street. And all in the fresh summer air!

Our approach was as naive and simple as you would think it: just walk up and knock on the door, give a pretty bland and hassle-free schpiel, and then either move on or get down to work. I think the fanciest thing we ever tossed out to finesse them was to note how useful it would be if acquaintances or firetrucks and ambulances needed to find their house quickly or at night. Really, though, how much can you dress up a proposal to spraypaint their address on the curb?

The painting process itself was fairly easy, although not something you could do on auto-pilot. We got into a state that I would later learn is called Flow by psychologists, where your skill level and the challenge at hand are matched so that you do pretty well, get quick feedback about how you're doing, and are focused yet unaware of time passing. We had cut out the shape of a smallish picture frame from a brown paper grocery bag, which served as the stencil for the white background. It had to be of a flexible material since we were going to press it against a rolling curb. The only trick here was pressing down all around the perimeter, not just here and there, or else the white spraypaint could slip under an area that wasn't held down fast. From heavy cardboard, we made a stencil that would block out all of the white background except for a small rectangular area where one of the numbers would go. On top of this we laid our store-bought number stencil, let the black paint fly, and after three or four times, we were done.

Of course, that doesn't mean we didn't occasionally screw up -- and learn how to deal with the inevitable failures that come from putting yourself out there. (The shielded kids of the past 15 to 20 years fail to learn how to cope with failure because they don't get any real-world practice with it.) It only happened once, as I recall, but it was pretty devastating for us. Somehow whoever painted the white background made it too big -- it wasn't just a long rectangle that tightly framed the address numbers, but yawned vertically across the entire front of the curb, making lots of ugly negative white space.

I don't remember exactly how he tried to fix it, but I think Robbie tried to make the numbers bigger to compensate, and that looked even more hideous. Frustrated and angry, he sprayed the black paint in a wavy, scribbly motion across the whole thing, as though he were crossing out a misspelled word in his book report. The rest of us freaked out, sure that we were going to get grounded for this -- for Robbie losing his cool -- and that we'd have to repay the homeowners who knew how much. Luckily they let us use their phone to call Robbie's parents, who came with a can of paint thinner and their grown-up social skills to smooth things over with the poor bastards whose curb we'd ruined. It took at least another hour to fix it up, but it ended up looking fine. Boy did we learn first-hand how when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging!

Still, most of our offers went nowhere, perhaps because they imagined something just like this happening to their as-yet-unsullied front yard. Paying $4 for a service that had a 1% chance of lowering their property value by $10,000 must have been too much risk for them to take just to indulge some kids in their quest to grow up and be doing something meaningful. By the end of the 10 or so weeks of our summer job, we'd pocketed between $80 and $90, although adjusting for inflation that would now be $125-140. Pretty sweet for kids who just graduated 4th grade, let alone for an activity we loved anyway -- hanging out together, exploring the neighborhood, trying to talk ourselves up to the grown-ups, and occasionally even getting to work in a focused way with our hands and tools.

And that was just the work day -- afterwards we almost always went to either of the two local public pools (unsupervised, naturally) to cool off, to goof around after having to be somewhat serious for hours straight, and especially to wash all that gunky spraypaint off our hands before we went home.

What did we do with the money we'd earned? Well Robbie and I did most of the work, so we had more say. And because we were friends, we didn't want to just split up the dough like some band of mercenaries -- we wanted to buy some Really Big Thing that would belong to us all and commemorate our adventure. We didn't think about it this way consciously, of course; it just came to us naturally. In June of that summer, we heard about what would become one of the greatest video games -- and at the time, one of the most expensive -- Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis system.

None of us could have ever saved up enough money to get it on our own, so we decided to put our collective earnings toward it and play it together, trading it around whenever someone else wanted to play it (mostly just me and Robbie, though). It was the same as the premise of a later Simpsons episode where three boys pool their money to buy a rare comic book, but whose friendships are torn apart by the rivalry over who has greater access to it. That may happen in the imagination of self-centered TV writers, but back on planet Earth we got along just fine. It worked because it was such a small group and we all were friendly toward each other, so enforcement of fairness wasn't hard at all. Plus that was before anyone was a self-ruined video game addict who would have wanted to play it as their second full-time job. So, it was no more disruptive to our relationships than two or three housemates sharing a bathroom.

I returned to Upper Arlington once after moving away before middle school began, but I didn't think to look for the curbs we'd painted. I'll bet they're still there, even though the houses may look funny from additions, and despite the turnover of occupants during the 20 years since. You'd have to be pretty anti-address-on-the-curb to scrub it off if it was already there. It's no work of art -- no one will behold it in 10,000 years and marvel -- but it feels bizarrely rewarding to know there's some enduring mark of our existence and our teamwork out there.

* * *

When you're a little kid, especially a little boy, you can only take it so long before you get bored of trying to sell some of your toys or other junk in a yard sale, or setting up a sidewalk stand for lemonade. (Or for milk and cookies, like my brothers tried -- my parents soon bought all the milk, which had already spoiled in the summer sun, so no one would get poisoned). You want to band together with your allies and go out there and do something. When children and adults alike pussy out of their duty to help get the kids' hands dirty with real-world experience, not too long after we'll see a generation of young adults whose personal growth has been too stunted to function as well as young adults used to when they entered college or the workforce with a history of working.

This stunted generation may not bring down the economy, but it won't sail as smoothly as if they'd been properly trained by the real world. And even if it did work just as well as before, there's the matter of giving meaning to young people's lives, independent of how much value they add to the economic pie. If the Millennials appear to be coasting through an existential drift, bereft of a passion for life, it's no surprise: they've been a lot more shielded from the stressors of real life throughout their development. Even during materially prosperous times, like the dangerous years of the 1960s through the '80s, kids still felt the urge to make something of themselves, and their parents encouraged them. It's a tough world out there, so they've got to learn. During safe times, this sense of urgency evaporates, kids remain insulated, and they don't develop that grab-the-world-by-the-balls attitude.

i mean, dude, i'll get around to that later. right now i'm busy kicking some noob's ass in halo, so leave me alone.

(This is true even of the 1950s, which were a safe decade. Most people falsely project the period from roughly 1958 to 1963 back onto the 1950s. But that was when rock music blew up, when Hitchcock made Psycho, and when The Sandlot is set. Those are all from wild, rising-crime times, not The Fifties. People make this mistake because the explosion of the late '60s had not happened yet, but the pre-counter-cultural days were still squarely within the post-'50s era of unsupervised wildness.)

Well, at the start I thought I'd have a chance to yak on about my second pre-teen job as a paperboy on a route that my best friend and I shared in middle school, but this has gotten pretty long, so maybe I'll save that for later.


  1. Through high school I mowed neighbors lawns in the summer; I sometimes would have as many as three or four per week. I also played piano for a small church across town at $20 per week. This was a week's worth of gas money in the late 90's so I didn't have to rely on my parents for the cost of gas.

    The summer after I graduated high school I got a job at Chick-fil-A. When my college sociology class read Fast Food Nation it turned out through a show of hands that I was the only one in a class of 40 that had actually worked at a fast food chain. So even among people our age the trend of less real-world experience among kids was showing.

  2. I mowed grass when I was around 12 (this was the late 80s). Some other kids were going around charging $15 and extra if you wanted the grass bagged up. I charged $10 (which to me was a pile of money). Had 2 or 3 steady clients for several years. I got the money for the original Game Boy I wanted in a month.

    As far as actual teenagers go, I see the problem as twofold. On one side you have a generation of SWPL parents pushing their kids to go volunteer at nonprofits or some other garbage that doesn't really teach them to do anything, but looks good on a college resume. To be fair, starting from the summer between my junior and senior years of high school and through graduation, I went to work in my stepdad's office. But I actually learned a ton about how his profession operated, which at the time I thought I was going to pursue at college.

    On the other side, you have a mountain of people who don't belong here taking up all the crap jobs that teenagers normally did. Squeezed from both sides.

  3. I'm under the impression that the media initiated a cycle of refusal between kids and aldults in relation to work.
    I don't know which came first, the hostile child or dismissive adult, but when I was growing up it was the beginning of the mass media's coverage of the 'chav' phenomenon over her in England.
    Suddenly kids had become dangerous as reports of gangs beating up pensioners and vandalising property were often front page stories. So much was the stigma that all children were branded as potentially violent, the number of times people would cross the road to avoid kids as we all walked home from school was ridiculous. I'd even try and make eye contact to give a reassuring smile if someone would dare to walk past me but they seemed to assume it was some sort of stare-down as a prelude to a mugging and thusly, avoided looking at me at all cost.

    Now you're wondering why they don't go out to interact with adults in an attempt to find a job? They're dismissed as either uselss or dangerous, the very idea of coming onto their property to clean a driveway, wash windows or mow a lawn is damn near offensive to them with the risk of violent youths being close to them far outwaying any benefit they might derive from the work.

    Even at my age now, 21, I see myself wary of younger people. Down at the local park, as long as they're in a group, they're hostile in that passive-aggresive way that doesn't quite deserve any sort of physical retaliation but is so blunt as to negate any sort of verbal exchange.
    The youth are seeing adults less as potential providers of jobs, responsibility and care and more as obstructions to be worked around or avoided entirely.

  4. I think Sam has a point here.

    Is our generation somehow wimpy and lacking fiber that our parents had in abundance?

    Or have we come of age in a different social dynamic?

    No one really wants or encourages the participation of teenagers in society. Ideally, young people stay in their schools and don't bother the rest of society.
    The antipathy between adult and young people is so ingrained that it's put forth as the natural way of the world. Just open a newspaper and read 'Luann' or 'Zits'.

    Most significantly, it seems most of your childhood adventures were group activities.

    In a world where job security is a thing of the past, people are always moving and no one in the neighborhood knows each other. Kids end up isolated and such collective entrepreneurial impulses never have a chance to arise.

    I would also suppose that children are precluded from associating by the constant rushing to soccer games and lessons of every kind.

    I can't imagine how baby boomers expected blazing self initiative to arise after micro-managing every second of their children's lives well into adolescence.


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