Sasha Obama is lucky to be busing tables and minding a takeout window. If only more teens had the chance to do the same thing.
This week, the Boston Herald reported that President Obama’s younger daughter, 15, has been working at Nancy’s, a fried-fish joint on Martha’s Vineyard. Until they realized who she was, other employees couldn’t figure out why she had a six-person entourage helping her.
Summer jobs are good for everyone, and not just because they teach young people up and down the income spectrum what it’s like to earn and manage money. If you were a college-bound kid in an uneventful suburb like the one where I grew up, the summer job in the local restaurant or retail outlet also forced you to get over yourself.
In school, the adults in charge tried to maximize your self-esteem. At work, the message was different: Spit out your gum. Greet the customer. Also, there’s a cleanup in aisle six. Here’s your mop.
The biggest problem with summer jobs today is this: You almost have to be the president’s daughter to get one.
Every June, July, and August, there are stories about the decline of the traditional summer job. According to the financial news site MarketWatch, the number of 16- to 19-year-olds who got jobs in May was down 14 percent from last year; the 2015 total was 11 percent less than the year before. In the 1980s, more than half of teenagers had summer jobs, but now fewer than a third do.
To pad their college applications, kids from wealthy families go on parentally subsidized volunteer missions in Mongolia or Chile. Meanwhile, lots of kids who really could use the money live in areas where there aren’t any stores, amusement parks, recreation facilities, or other businesses — or at least none that will hire teenagers during school breaks. According to a JPMorgan Chase report last year, employment rates among poor teens are 20 percentage rates lower than among affluent teens.
In Boston and elsewhere, governments and corporations have created special jobs programs for teenagers, but there are only so many slots.
In mid-May, I stopped in at a South End event where a group of young protesters confronted Mayor Marty Walsh about the dearth of summer jobs in Boston. Their tactics were over the top — they presented the mayor with a summer-jobs pledge that he was never going to sign on the spot, especially after they’d loudly interrupted his event — but the problem is genuine. Kids who can’t get summer jobs are missing out on a lot.
When I was in high school in Rhode Island, in the late 1980s, most of my friends ended up working at the ice cream shop on one end of town or the gigantic discount store on the other. My first job was at the latter, in the patio department. Later, I graduated to assembling particleboard desks and TV stands — floor models of the build-it-yourself furniture that the store sold to customers in flat, heavy boxes.
By far the best part of my job was accepting returns from customers who couldn’t figure out the directions — or had never tried. “It must have been like that when I took it out of the package,” they’d say, as they presented torn boxes, scratched-up glass doors, and shelves with wooden dowels comically hammered into all the wrong holes.
“That happens,” I’d say neutrally, as I filled out the return slip. You didn’t get paid to say, “That never happens, unless you screwed something up royally.” The policy at our store was the customer was always right.
On the job, I had to confront questions that never arose in school. For example, why did it say “chaise longue” on the box, when we all say “chaise lounge”? I also learned that letting clueless 16-year-old clerks discount prices on patio tables with the stroke of a pen is not the most obvious way to stay in business. (The chain that employed me, based in my hometown, is a shadow of its former self.)
Today, amid a relentless drive for efficiency throughout the economy, fewer employers want to bother training teenagers about good work habits. Faraway corporate managers, and the shareholders to whom they report, have less patience for the quirks of the local teenage labor force.
Ideally, summer jobs should come naturally from the private market rather than being conjured up by do-gooders or invented by government decree. When those protesters demanded that Walsh create more summer jobs, I fretted to myself that participants in such programs are getting a distorted view of how the economy works.
The other possibility, though, is that the protesters see the realities of today’s summer job market far better than Sasha Obama or I can.