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.

11 comments on “Menial Summer Jobs and Affluence
  • I think these articles fail to take a major new factor into account. The old system was based on the assumption that the access to knowledge was limited. Of course then it made sense that you’d start as an assistant or an intern when you were 25 instead of 18. But today the youth culture has at its fingertips a wealth if information so vast that it is like comparing the stone age to the renaissance.

    Sure the ignorant should continue with the old model, but the ones who did the extra work and pushed ahead as they were able to, why should they be stuck in the slow lane?

  • What exactly is the old model Ryan? Are you talking about teens getting menial jobs?

    True, many internships are unpaid, but there are those that are paid. A lot of Investment Banking and Consulting firms pay their interns.

    As for the lessons that might be lost pushing papers vs. flipping burgers. Every job teaches discipline, especially if its a 9-5 or however long work day.

  • I think too many of us have forgotten why some of us took on those paper rounds and other ‘menial’ jobs.

    Firstly, not a lot of other stuff was available and parents, who wanted kids to stay out of trouble, were all too happy to see some of the extra energy dissipated doing something worthwhile in the neighbourhood than sitting around with a devil’s workshop.

    Secondly, may be children now do not need those jobs. With basic needs (and some not so basic, what with games and iPods etc galore) fulfilled, they have moved on to a more utilitarian paradigm of life. What is wrong with that? Esp for children growing up in the haven of capitalism – the United States?

    It is also a sign of economic affluence. Again I see nothing wrong with that. I have recently moved 500 miles from living in Edinburgh’s New Town, where getting the newspaper was a 1-min walk, if you do not count the walk down the two flights of stairs. In my new neighbourhood, in Greater London, it is not so simple. The newspaper vendor however cannot deliver any papers home, as in the 30 years of being in business, he has never found a child to do the paper rounds. This is an affluent suburb of stay-at-moms, with their Chelsea tractors and banker dads, who commute their 15-min to the City, almost printing money every day. Why would the child need to do paper rounds if he can do better things like the American Express summer camp to learn money management skills?

  • Social inequity is something I think about quite a bit and I’d have thought that the paragraph following the emphasis in the abstract was more insightful and much less obvious:

    “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.”

  • Great post Ben,

    I constantly battle with this dilemma, and when the WSJ’s column came out, I had my teeth grinding at the bit.

    There are just so many things that are unfair in this life, that I think it’s hard to concisely sum them up in one short comment, though, I think the main point I am trying to make, is that either route you take, there is always going to be someone more qualified or experienced out there.

    I think the question employers should be asking is more how you as an individual acts, than how screwed up the system is.

  • Here are two things I learned from my first job at McDonald’s:

    1. There is indeed a connection between what you eat and your health. I was a pretty healthy high schooler before I started working at Mickey Dees. A few months later, I couldn’t say that.

    It’s been years since I’ve eaten McDonalds food, and I’m much healthier for it.

    2. Because I wasn’t available to work whenever McDonalds wanted me to — and I was still in high school, after all — and because I wasn’t willing to be one of the manager’s pet girls, I was exiled to the lobby and put on cleaning duty. The manager later used this as an excuse to fire me.

    BTW, that manager was later fired by McDonalds. I don’t know if it was due to his alcoholism, his inability to keep his hands off my female coworkers, his cooking of the store’s books, or some combination of these things, but Mickey Dees did catch up with him. Finally.

    So, menial labor can indeed teach you some life lessons. And ones that aren’t necessarily positive.

  • The benefit of menial jobs is that privileged kids have a chance to work alongside people from less affluent backgrounds. My experience was quit mind expanding as I was exposed to an entirely different outlook on life. For me, this was much more important than developing “humbling self-descipline”.

  • This reminds me of a blog posting I did regarding McJob to Management:

    On my way to a business meeting yesterday I was listening to ‘talk live’ radio and the subject of ‘McJob’ was being discussed.

    Basically a new word ‘McJob’ has been established and it is ‘ slang for a low-paying, low-prestige job that requires few skills and offers very little chance of intracompany advancement’.

    I disagree with the definition.

    A professor had completed a piece of work to see if the definition was accurate. His findings showed individuals with McJobs were:

    * on the first rung of the career ladder
    * enjoying their role (mostly)
    * happier being employed rather than not

    When I was 16 I had 3 McJopbs:

    1. Petrol Pump Attendant (in those days there was no self service!!) – 70p per hour
    2. collecting Littlewoods Pools Coupons – commission based
    3. working in a DIY store – 90p per hour

    I loved the jobs (and money of course!). I was dealing with the public, having responsibility and built long-term relationships. In fact, through my relationships, I was offered another role as a gardener for one of my regular petrol buyers. My McJobs were the start of my successful career. Building relationships and dealing with people is a skills we all must have if we want to be successful in our careers.

    Tesco’s chief executive Sir Terry Leahy, started stacking shelves in his local branch of the supermarket chain, during the summer holidays, when he was 15. What a career he has had starting with a McJob!

    Any of you started with a McJob? How was it? Did it provide some fundamental basic skills?

  • Ben,

    I’ve done my share of s— jobs and here’s why.

    How can you ever be expected to lead people when you haven’t had a shared experience with them? I think the labor attorneys of the world will be better when they can understand the complaints and arguments of the workers.

    I think ideally, the best kind of jobs are actually two jobs at once (provided you can’t get the job that pays well and builds the resume). I have worked the resume builder and then the night job. It’s often very hard on you emotionally and psychologically, but it makes you think about both jobs more economically, a sort of Taylorization sets in.

    On the question of illegal immigrants and that affecting teens, it’s difficult for me to gage whether or not the teens can get the jobs (often it’s not good for the employer to hire someone for only a few months) or whether the teens are just using that issue as an excuse.

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