In the summer after 10th grade, some kids went to the beach to cool off; I went to the frozen foods aisle. I got my first real job that year, bagging groceries in exchange for air conditioning.
OK, Market Basket also paid me $4.25 an hour, the minimum wage at the time. But the AC was divine, and there were other perks, too. I got to beat the heat inside a crisp, cold store, talking with other teenagers and scavenging doughnuts from damaged Entenmann’s boxes in the break room.
I loved that job. If you do it properly, bagging groceries is a “Tetris”-style puzzle just challenging enough to make an afternoon fly by. I enjoyed making customers smile, helping older folks out to their cars, and imagining people’s lives based on the contents of their grocery carts.
As a teen part-timer, the straightforward nature of the work was also gratifying. There was no ambiguity about what constituted a job well done, and no lingering job stress to keep me up at night. If a customer was rude, it stung — but they’d be out of your life three minutes later. And there were missions to break up the monotony. You might have to mop up a smashed jar of applesauce, or sprint to the dairy case to replace someone’s leaking milk carton. And, of course, we took shifts shagging empty carts from the parking lot, steering caravans of carriages across baking asphalt. On nice days, it was a serene escape from the din of beeping scanners and banging cash drawers.
Best of all was the camaraderie. I enjoyed drawing in high school, but there’s no such thing as a varsity art team. Work was the only roster I could make, and at the grocery store, it really did feel like I was on a team. I got to form bonds with popular peers who’d have never spoken to me in the cafeteria, and kids from other schools and backgrounds whom I’d probably never have crossed paths with otherwise. You’d be surprised at the depth and breadth of conversations you can carry as heads of lettuce tumble down a conveyor belt.
I discovered that I was a diligent worker — and that not everyone else was, but you still had to figure out how to get the job done together. I gained confidence conversing with strangers and navigating managers. And I learned how payroll taxes work, how to cash a check, and how it’s harder to waste your money once you understand what went into earning it.
That dose of reality is important for kids, says Rhode Island College economist Paul Harrington, especially at a time when 40 percent of high school students surveyed by youth financial literacy nonprofit Junior Achievement said they were considering careers as social media influencers. That’s all well and good, but about as practical as banking on movie or baseball stardom.
“Work should be a part of every kid’s high school experience, in my mind,” Harrington says, noting that it’s an early introduction to the system most of us will be engaged with for the bulk of our lives. “For many kids, their first adult interaction, where they’re on the hook for their own behavior...is on their job,” he says. “If you don’t show up, if you blow off your shifts, you get fired, and there’s nothing Mom and Dad can do about it.”
Of course, that lesson in accountability can fall harder on the many teens who work to help support their families financially. But working in high school does more than teach responsibility. Even after accounting for socioeconomic and other factors, over their lifetimes, “Kids who work more have better earnings, they’re less likely to be unemployed, they’re more likely to have employment stability. And, interestingly enough, they’re more likely to finish college, and that’s especially true for boys,” Harrington says.
Kids aren’t working as much as they used to, though, according to an annual teen job outlook report by Harrington and his colleagues. In 2000, more than half of 16- to 19-year-olds held summer jobs; that number steadily dwindled after the dot-com bust, bottoming out at around 30 percent in 2011.
Youth summer employment has been rising since — aside from 2020, when COVID closures clobbered teen-heavy job sectors such as hospitality and retail. Last summer, 38 percent of older teens held a job, the highest rate since 2007. And with the economy now at or beyond full employment, with more available jobs than unemployed workers to take them, “The labor market conditions for kids this year are really outstanding,” Harrington says.
I continued working through college — at Waldenbooks, campus snack bars, and coffee shops — and each job taught me more about the world and the humans who inhabit it. I learned to love cooking on the job, and the kitchen has been my household domain ever since. I grew to crave the stressful but exhilarating rhythms of retail — from the supermarket pandemonium of Thanksgiving Eve to the crush of customers who crowded into our dormitory snack bar in between Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five on Wednesday nights — and later found the rushes of deadline journalism to be comfortingly familiar.
It wasn’t all good, of course. Changing a receipt roll while frustrated shoppers fumed in line was agony. Cleaning the grease traps above a deep fryer is disgusting, but only if you’ve never mopped a grocery store bathroom. And even as a healthy 16-year-old, my legs throbbed after each shift; I couldn’t imagine how the older workers could bear it.
But those challenges provided perhaps the most important lesson of all: respect and empathy for other humans. I don’t trust anyone who’s rude or condescending to a server or cashier. Some people have never worked in retail, hospitality, or food service, and, well, it shows.
So, kids, go get a job this summer. There are plenty to choose from this year, and since the labor market is “path dependent,” Harrington says — meaning your probability of working in the future hinges heavily on whether you’ve worked in the past — you’ll likely have an easier time getting jobs the rest of your life. You’ll earn money, learn new things, make friends — and probably end up being a better human, too.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.