A news story out of Australia went viral last week, focused on a mother who will not let her 15-year-old son have a part-time job because she thinks that childhood ought to be carefree and without the burden of work that adults must face.
Predictably, there was no shortage of backlash over this idea. And while I am not one who tends to judge the parenting choices of others, it did make me remember my own teenage jobs, and why they were important to me, as they were for so many Americans.
For many of us, our first job as a teenager was a profound memory, as a theretofore hidden world of the workforce, lacking the protections of family or school, opened up to us.
For me, it was a paper route on chilly, still-dark autumn mornings, the snap of the plastic band, the smell of the broadsheets, and eventually, the not-always-so-easy collecting of the subscriber’s money.
At the time I didn’t know that I was part of a long tradition, the first paperboy, 10-year-old Barney Flaherty started the industry in 1833 after answering an ad in The New York Sun. And just like that the plucky Irish kid had launched a cultural phenomenon.
Throughout the rest of the 19th Century and into the 20th, American society struggled with the appropriate work-life balance for teens. Child labor laws protected kids from abuse, but also carved out exceptions for lighter, part-time work.
This was really as much about instilling a work ethic as it was about economic opportunity for youth, and it tended to work.
We all know that a dollar earned sits rather differently in the pocket than a dollar bestowed, its value tethered directly to our labor.
The good news is that the number of 16-19 year-olds either working or looking has ticked up to 37% according to the Labor Department, that’s the highest since 2019. The bad news is that in 1979, that number was 58%.
The societal upshot of this is that most people born in the early 1960s had experienced manual or retail labor, even those who went on to more respected professions.
They learned, lo those years ago, that the marvels of the modern world didn’t just magically exist for them. They were and are maintained by people who shower after work, not before.
In 2020 amid COVID-19, how many of the current professional class came to understand that they aren’t quite as important as they thought they were?
They saw sanitation workers and delivery men make the world go round from their living room laptops, which before too long, with artificial intelligence may render them obsolete, despite their degrees.
Yet still, the American worker today is taken for granted. Once considered the firm and moral backbone of the nation, the working class is all but mocked by elites with soft, clean hands.
The left calls them suckers for not demanding socialism, while at the same time sending the workers’ tax dollars to pay off the student loans of the college educated with their gender studies degrees.
The right too often sends the message that if you’re not a top 10%t, high-value human already rich off of cryptocurrency and aspiring for a private jet, then what even is the point of you?
Among the best ways to combat these pernicious attitudes is for teenagers, of all means and walks of life, to experience the pride and dignity that comes with work, with serving others.
Now on cool, quiet, and black September early mornings, I write columns for newspapers instead of delivering them. And yet I know instinctively that my job is not possible without blue-collar workers from electricians to janitors who actually make it all go.
So let your kid have that after-school job, let him learn the responsibility, the pride, the social skills of the workplace, and perhaps most of all, respect for the working-class people of our nation, who we rightfully celebrate on Labor Day.
And to all the hard-working Americans who can kick back a bit today? Well I hope you enjoy it, and that you will accept my humble thanks.
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