Moreover, kids who are savvy about computers and finance are eschewing age-appropriate jobs in favor of internships at banks and investment companies. A New York Times story on the BLS study quoted a college student as saying, "I know it sounds arrogant, but my time is worth more than $8 or $10 an hour. I've got a whole lot of other things to do."
This article really rankled me, although I can't really figure out to whom my ire should be directed. Guidance counselors and teachers (mostly gym teachers) used to talk a lot about "character building." This involved playing on the soccer team even if you weren't the best player, and working at Pathmark even if you'd rather be in France reading Proust in the original. The "well-rounded" individual would subsequently be an excellent candidate for the college of her choice and then go on to a life of prosperity and good citizenship.
Kids who have better things to do than fry Big Macs aren't necessarily bad people. If anything, they are responding to their parents, who take vicarious, and somewhat hypocritical, pride in their children's pristine avoidance of commonplace jobs. The Times story quoted several adults, all middle-aged baby boomers, who waxed self-righteous about the moral benefits of working a summer in construction or frying donuts. Their fondly remembered, stress-free stints in the working class sounded a lot like the nostalgia for 1960s-era social politics. Today, these boomers hold highly paid professional positions and hand out the internships.
At 30, I fall somewhere between a boomer and today's 16-year-olds. I'm too old to benefit from the current tide of youth-accessible wealth; I'm too young to glorify the hard work of slinging hash. I was a teenager in the mid 80s, long before the high-tech revolution, when the economy was slowing. Summer jobs were a necessity. It was gravy that it was cool to be a lifeguard or that it looked good on the college resume.
It's no coincidence that the highest rate of teenage employment (71.8 %) occurred in 1978, during a major recession. In such times, kids earn money over the summer to pay for college textbooks, or earn spending money for the academic year. Fewer kids, too, have the luxury of going to college at all; the summer job is often their point of entry into the workforce.
It's time we re-examined our notions of ambition, which, a long time ago, was connected to hard work and delayed gratification. Now ambition is inextricably linked to prestige. A kid who spends the summer studying in France will be considered ready for success; the lifeguard or the waitress is dismissed as a slacker.
Chances are that kid in France is spending a lot of time smoking Gitanes in cafes, whereas the waitress back home gets up before dawn. The kid in France might gain some fluency or acquire some cocktail party banter about Impressionism, but the lifeguard is learning what it means to be responsible for human lives. So who, after all, grows more?
If college admissions officials value unpaid stints at prestigious law firms or travel more than old-fashioned, wage-earning jobs, the class divide in this country will only widen. The poor souls who spent their summers earning a buck at 7-11 or serving up Grand Slam Breakfasts at Denny's will be considered incapable of handling the fast-track professional world.
If we don't regain an appreciation for hands-on labor, the next generation will be so removed from the non-professional world that the class divide in America will reach unparalleled and irreparable proportions. The country's leaders won't be able to fathom workers' issues; exploitation will go unchecked, American manufacturers will continue to move factories to the Third World, and opportunities for the working class will continue to dry up.
Perhaps we should stop glorifying the well-traveled 18-year-old who's held three internships but has never experienced that particular and sudden understanding of the world that comes from breaking a stack of dishes while bussing tables for minimum wage. Maybe town newspapers should stop slathering praise on high school students who make independent films on their parents' dollar (shouldn't those be called "dependent films?") while their "less creative" friends mow lawns and work at Wendy's. We should remember that resourcefulness is a form of creativity, and that ambition can be found where we've come to least expect it. Ambition is, more than likely, right across the deli counter.
So tip well. Or at least treat the clerk with the respect you'd give to someone who wasn't being paid.