Skip links

In Praise of the Teen Summer Job

by Dave Shiflett via WSJ.com

BN-IB286_cover_J_20150423171238

Among the signs of my advancing age is bafflement at hearing younger parents talk about what their teenagers are going to do over the summer. Some mention internships with documentary filmmakers. Others say that their offspring will spend the hot months building latrines in distant corners of the developing world. A few speak of expeditions to measure the disappearance of glaciers or a period of reflection at an ashram in Tamil Nadu.

What on Earth is an ashram? And when did teenagers start doing all these exotic things instead of working summer jobs?

I wish them well, of course, and hope that they build the finest latrines ever to grace the Guatemalan countryside. I should also acknowledge that I wish such opportunities had been available to me when I was growing up.

At the same time, there is value in recalling the grit and glory of traditional summer work, which has taught generations of teenagers important lessons about life, labor and even their place in the universe—which turned out to be nowhere as close to the center as we had imagined.

Most of these jobs were anything but glamorous. Newspaper delivery, for example, was the first rung on many an economic ladder. The paperboy (or girl) had to rise early, pull heavily laden wagons up and down dark streets, and later go door-to-door collecting money from customers. It was amazing how gruff some could be, especially if you had innocently thrown a morning post or two through a window.

Construction work was another staple of the summer circuit, and it taught the glories of digging holes, hauling bricks and watching a house or building slowly fill a hole in the landscape. These jobs also introduced many of us to the phenomenon known as workplace danger. Countless youngsters picked up their first work scars on a construction site.

So let’s leave behind, momentarily, the allure of ashrams, glaciers and humanitarian latrine work and travel back to the early 1970s. The British band Mungo Jerry had a hit with “In the Summertime,” which sang the praises of fishing, swimming and dining with the girl of your dreams: “If her daddy’s rich, take her out for a meal / If her daddy’s poor, just do what you feel.” My girlfriend was a doctor’s daughter, so I needed to make as much money as possible. Which led me to a gray cinder-block opportunity zone called Pitzer Transfer and Storage.

Pitzer was a combination warehouse and furniture-moving company located near the then-festering Roanoke River in Roanoke, Va. This sprawling edifice (long ago razed) incubated few if any plutocrats, but it was an excellent showcase of Darwinian endurance. Among the more memorable tasks was the unloading of 100-pound bags of salt and sugar from railroad boxcars. In the summer, the boxcars became ovens—an effect enhanced by the forklifts that darted in and out to remove the loaded pallets. Some ran on natural gas, but others belched deep blue smoke reminiscent of fighter planes that had taken a stream of tracer bullets through the gas tank.

All of which worked wonders for a youngster’s self-esteem. Not only were we lifting and stacking bags fairly close to our body weight (I tipped the scales at around 135), but we were inhaling and exhaling the near equivalent of a forest fire and remaining upright. We often celebrated by using our 10-minute breaks to smoke a cigarette. If the surgeon general had happened by, he might have stroked out.

Another valuable part of the experience for a middle-class white kid was getting to know people from different backgrounds. Several co-workers were black; all were blue-collar. A few constantly radiated bourbon fumes, while one somewhat odd fellow seemed to be addicted to boiled eggs. This was our first close encounter with the melting pot—our version, perhaps, of joining the military, which had introduced wartime generations to the demographic rainbow of America. The older workers didn’t take us young bucks very seriously, but if we paid attention, we could learn a few things from them, including something about the dignity of common labor.

While prospects for job advancement were slim to none, many of the full-timers (lifers, as we called them) took pride in a job well done. And while you didn’t run into many prima donnas in that warehouse, there were world-class good people whose enthusiasm for life was as great as any king’s. I will never forget the day our foreman’s grandson graduated from high school—a first for his family, as memory serves. You would have thought the lad had found the cure for cancer and the common cold too. The foreman’s name was Percy. I assume he’s dead by now.

Perhaps he amuses himself, in some celestial bower, with recollections of how terribly his summer boys sometimes did their jobs—especially when we were allowed (for unknown reasons) to operate the forklifts. Among my most vivid memories is sending a set of forks through the picture tube of a large console television, which produced a magnificent explosion. Oil drums, foodstuffs—all were lanced, often fatally. I shudder to think what I could have accomplished if texting while driving had been possible back then.

Inanimate objects weren’t the only entities to suffer. Humans also took their licks. One day, while moving furniture, we rolled an upright piano over a co-worker, a seasoned professional who immediately sprang up and kept working. This was impressive, and no doubt reflected a desire not to be fired, which in those days seemed to be a common response to injury. The injured were not victims. They were liabilities.

I personally experienced this phenomenon after I had an unpleasant encounter with an arc welder. It all happened very quickly. An older guy (probably not my boss, but we respected our elders back then, which turns out not to be a uniformly wise policy) told me to weld together a broken hatch of some kind. I had absolutely no experience but went at it with youthful exuberance. Later that evening, I became aware of a sensation resembling having sand poured into my eyes, which I treated with cucumber slices. “Flash burns,” the boss noted when I returned a few days later, just before giving me the boot. I should add, on his behalf, he didn’t follow that with, “And good riddance!”

But what’s a little eye-roasting compared with being crushed by a tractor? That teaching moment occurred the summer before my senior year, on my second day of a brand-new farm job. The boss, who seemed to believe that city-raised teenagers instinctively knew how to handle farm equipment, sent us up to a plateau to discard some rain-ruined hay. On the way back down the hill, we lost control of the tractor. In the resulting crash (which I have no recollection of), both lungs were punctured by my ribs and began taking on blood. One filled completely. The other was edging that way when I arrived at the hospital. Some of the emergency-room team thought I was a goner.

But one doctor (my girlfriend’s father) saw a dim spark of life and helped revive me, which (after I regained consciousness) taught me once again the value of perseverance. There were other lessons as well. I carried from the incident a memory of looking down and watching the revival process. Perhaps a delusion, but perhaps one of those “near-death” experiences that have launched many a literary career and a cult or two.

Disaster, of course, is a very good teacher, so long as you survive the course. No one values their own heartbeat more than the person who has nearly had his slip away. Besides that, a close brush with death teaches you to be a bit more careful. There was another lesson as well: The doctor’s daughter dumped me, a reminder of the fleeting nature of love.

Those were far different days. We didn’t consider suing the farm owner, while today the first response might be to phone a lawyer before summoning the ambulance. Indeed, if I had hooked up with the right counselor during those early working years, I might today be living in the Taj Mahal. And while I wouldn’t trade these experiences for a year in an ashram with Elizabeth Taylor (circa 1970, please), I wouldn’t want my grandchildren spending their summers inhaling exhaust fumes.

Sadly, one of the biggest challenges facing today’s teenage worker is finding a job at all. A recent report by J.P. Morgan Chase says that only 46% of young people who applied for summer-employment programs were enrolled in 2014. “In the 14 major U.S. cities surveyed,” a release about the report added, “local officials also project that tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged youths looking for jobs will not be able to find them during the upcoming summer months.”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the labor-force participation rate—that is, the proportion of a given population that is working or looking for work—for all youth last July was “17.0 percentage points below the peak rate for that month in 1989.” And the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says that young workers “between 16 and 24 years of age constitute the demographic group that has experienced one of the most substantial declines in labor force participation”—though part of that change, this study noted, could be due to more youths spending summers on educational pursuits.

May the Force be with them, and may the older generation start doing as good a job supplying them with jobs as saddling them with debt. Meanwhile, today’s teens may find some comfort in knowing that plenty of free advice is floating around about how summer jobs are often the first step on the yellow brick road to success.

As a part-time musician and full-time geezer with delusions of musical grandeur, I am struck by how often this sort of story gets told by big-time performers of my generation. I got in touch with a few musicians who got rich and famous playing songs about White Rabbits and rocking ’n’ rolling all night but who earlier threw papers and cut grass. These days, they sing something of a different tune—one that might have set Dale Carnegie’s toes to tapping.

Gene Simmons, the bass player of the rock band Kiss (also famous for his anaconda-length tongue), was quick to respond to my query about his summer-job experiences. “I have done everything from delivering newspapers, scrubbing the fat off of a butcher’s block in a meat store, and being a secretary for hire,” he reported via email. Those were pre-Internet days, he added, when you had “roll up your sleeves and do it all yourself. You had to go to the newsstand. You had to buy your own newspaper. You had to look in the want ads columns. You had to pick up the phone and make your own appointment.”

But he didn’t have to travel far to find his blueprint for success. “The best life lesson and clarity of the capitalist business model I ever learned was from Junior Achievement,” he adds, referring to the youth-oriented program started in 1919 to teach financial literacy and entrepreneurship to students. “I would recommend young people do the same.”

Jorma Kaukonen, who grew up to play guitar for Jefferson Airplane (and now Hot Tuna), also delivered papers and learned to type his grandfather’s translations of Russian technical documents for the U.S. Department of Commerce, a skill he says still serves him well. The job also allowed him to dip his toe in the great melting pot. “I not only learned how to type,” he said, but “found myself surrounded by Russian émigrés. As a hot-rod-driving American kid, strangely enough, I found myself completely at home with these wonderful people from a different place and time—and also found them to be completely All-American.”

Like most other parents, he passed these values on to his children, including his son, who worked a food-prep job in a restaurant in the fancy Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Georgetown. “He called me when he got his first paycheck,” Mr. Kaukonen recalls. His son said, “I can’t believe how much they took out for taxes and Social Security”—to which Mr. Kaukonen recalls responding, “Welcome to my world!”

Mr. Kaukonen’s Jefferson Airplane bandmate Jack Casady, who also grew up in the D.C. area, remembers being a paper-delivering prodigy. “I started when I was 11 years old,” he said while waiting to play a recent gig in Florida. “On Sundays, I got up at 3 a.m. and delivered 400 papers.” He adds, “I made good money”—some of which he used to start the grass-cutting business that paid for his first musical instruments, including an amplifier kit he put together with help from his father.

“All of that taught me the thought process of setting your goal and then putting together the steps to reach that goal,” said Mr. Casady. “I learned that work was a means to independence and that if something you want is not available, you can make it yourself. There was no drudgery involved for me. Work was a means to freedom.”

His advice to young workers: Live and toil “with integrity,” and adopt a no-slacking attitude. “Luck and timing can make a big difference,” he said. “But Lord knows, prepare. If you prepare properly, you’re ready for luck and timing if they come your way.”

Besides sounding like candidates for higher office, including the presidency of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, all three of these guys ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—a source of pride and inspiration for the nation’s former paper carriers. In addition, those of us who drove forklifts and flirted with rogue tractors salute them—and are happy to still be around to welcome the new summer season.

Share with Friends: