On Monday we celebrated the summer solstice – the longest day of the year and the first day of summer, that blissful season of sunny, carefree days. As a twenty-something, summer means margaritas and outdoor seating, weekend trips to the beach and backyard barbecues. But as a teenager, summer meant the end of school and homework, and the beginning of three months of hard labor in the form of a cultural rite of passage known as the summer job.
Recently, I saw an article about the dismal outlook for summer employment this year, one of the many symptoms of our economy’s poor health, and couldn’t help but note the irony: the past few generations were raised to believe that only those who were privileged escaped the reality of the working world; that those who labored through the summer months had learned the true value of a dollar and now belonged a club of citizens allowed to use that oft mocked opening line, “When I was your age…” It’s interesting then, that in the last year or two, with summer employers tightening their belts, that notion of hard work is almost being turned on its head. Now those teenagers who are able to land summer jobs are considered lucky or connected – they’re the privileged ones. While a couple of tough years certainly won’t affect the viewpoint of an entire generation, it’s interesting to think about that potential shift in paradigm: those who work are privileged, and those who don’t are not.
This got me thinking: what will unemployed teenagers do with all that spare time? And more importantly, what will teenagers do without that crucial experience of summer work? It’s hard to imagine how I would have spent my Junes, Julys and Augusts without the obligations I fulfilled to various summer camps and local institutions, and even harder to imagine who I’d be without all the valuable lessons I took from summer jobs throughout the years. So, with that in mind, classes of 2010 and 2011, here’s what you’re missing – here’s what I learned from summer work back when I was your age:
My current boss is fond of saying that there’s nothing so confident as a high school senior just a few months away from graduation. Conversely, I believe it was Christina Applegate’s character in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead who said that no one wants to pay a teenager to do anything that’s not completely disgusting. Truer words were never spoken. As a camp counselor, I cleaned up kid-vomit, and as a hospital employee I carried blood and urine samples to the lab. Why? Because no one else wanted to do it. And so, lesson learned: my place in society at that point – as a teenager with no life experience and an incomplete education – was low (the lowest) on the proverbial totem pole.
I’m sure that at sixteen, I thought I knew that different socioeconomic groups experienced the world in different ways, but at seventeen, after spending a summer working at a country club in the middle of the Have’s and the Have Not’s, I had a much better idea of what that meant. Learning about social status and class in a history book was one thing; meeting people who took two buses to make minimum wage flipping turkey burgers for country club members was another.
The value of a dollar
I know, I know – it’s the most cliché cliché there is. But it still rings true. Once I started working, I began to see my money as my time and labor. Seven dollars wasn’t just seven dollars anymore; seven dollars was one hour of corralling hyper five year-olds into a lunch line; seven dollars was one hour of hellishly monotonous data entry while listening to middle-aged coworkers debate – at length – the color of Susan Lucci’s hair. It was one hour of making salads for wealthy housewives (dressing on the side, please), hauling wheelchairs from one side of a giant hospital to the other, making excruciatingly awkward cold calls to radio station receptionists who did not want to update their formats in our directory, thank you very much.
So maybe this decrease in summer employment will lead to a new club: When I was your age, I enrolled in summer school and did volunteer work because there were no jobs to be had. Or, even better: When I was your age, I slept until noon and watched Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) for three straight hours everyday. Those new war stories have a unique potential; what will summer mean to the next generation of teenagers? I can only hope (for their sake) that plastic nametags, kid-vomit and hourly wages will play at least a minor role.