Menial Summer Jobs and Affluence

Arnold Kling points me to this few-week old WSJ op-ed by Kay Hymowitz about teens increasingly skipping menial dishwashing jobs in favor of more exotic (and rewarding) corporate internships or service-learning projects such as building houses in Guatemala. Her point is that what’s lost in the paper-shuffling internship is the "humbling self-discipline" that comes from flipping burgers.

She cites "globalization" — the root of all evil! — as one reason why teens are doing less of the low-skilled stereotypical summer job because there are so many immigrants mowing lawns and washing dishes:

And, according to Neil Howe, an expert on age cohorts, kids are so used to seeing immigrants doing that sort of work that they assume "I don’t have to mess with food or cleaning stuff up."

This point is arguable, as is the idea that doing low-level service labor builds character and humility.

Arnold adds:

Her description of teenage extracurricular experience these days seems right on target. Affluent teenagers are spending an incredible amount of time abroad, while they are becoming increasingly out of touch with rural and small-town America.

And this is…bad? Nah. Unfair, but good for the lucky teen.

Hymowitz, in her op/ed, does, though, touch on one big, important idea when it comes to summer jobs: rich teens do mind expanding and usually unpaid internships while poor teens work paid but boring service jobs. It’s a trade-off I’ve seen time and time again: the most stimulating jobs for young people don’t pay well (or at all). By the time you’ve graduated from college, affluent teens have accumulated four years’ worth of impressive, worldly experiences, while less affluent teens have no experiences — just smaller student loans to pay off.

This made me think of the following abstract of this paper, emphasis below by Tyler Cowen:

Is lifetime inequality mainly due to differences across people established early in life or to differences in luck experienced over the working lifetime?  We answer this question within a model that features idiosyncratic shocks to human capital, estimated directly from data, as well as heterogeneity in ability to learn, initial human capital, and initial wealth — features which are chosen to match observed properties of earnings dynamics by cohorts.  We find that as of age 20, differences in initial conditions account for more of the variation in lifetime utility, lifetime earnings and lifetime wealth than do differences in shocks received over the lifetime.  Among initial conditions, variation in initial human capital is substantially more important than variation in learning ability or initial wealth for determining how an agent fares in life.  An increase in an agent’s human capital affects expected lifetime utility by raising an agent’s expected earnings profile, whereas an increase in learning ability affects expected utility by producing a steeper expected earnings profile.

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