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Teen Employment Isn’t Exploitation, But It Might Keep You From Becoming A Helpless Adult

Increasingly, Americans aren’t working as teenagers, and it’s no wonder there’s a growing political movement that equates employment with exploitation.


More than once, I’ve­ been drawn into a conversation among friends and family about who had the worst job. To the extent this is a competition, I always win because when I was 19, I spent a summer working at a port-a-potty place.

It was actually a pretty great job – I wasn’t dealing with used port-a-potties, my job was to hang out in a warehouse all day riveting together new port-a-potties that were shipped to the business. They came flat-packed in boxes and I had to put them together with a rivet gun. (I also had to put vinyl signs on all the port-a-potties that said the name of the company and their slogan, “We’re #1 and #2.”) This was the mid-’90s and I was being paid $12 an hour, which was about two or three times the minimum wage, and you better believe I was happy to have that job.

Of course, the nature of my job all changed my final day working there, when the owner of the company, whom I liked a great deal, came up to me and asked a favor. It’s a long story, but there were about 12 portable toilets that had been sitting on the back of the lot for days. These were fancy portable toilets that had sinks, and the users of the toilets had thrown the paper towels they used to dry their hands into the toilet tanks. It turned out the paper towels were so thick they were clogging the suction hoses normally used to clean out the toilets. Unable to be cleaned, the toilets were just sitting there baking in the August sun for a week or so, and pretty soon you could smell them from the road out front.

The owner of the business eventually had an idea for how he was going to get those port-a-potties cleaned out: He asked me to do it. It was one of those moments where you’re staring at someone and trying to process information so outrageous that you’re almost hovering above the scene trying to make sense of what you’re being told. I didn’t understand what he was asking me to do until I realized he was holding a pair of elbow-length gloves. In fairness, my boss knew it was my last day, and he told me I could refuse to do it. But everyone else was working 60-hour weeks driving trucks around, and he was desperate.

I considered what he said carefully, and it came down to this: The man had treated me very fairly, and until this point, had paid me exceptionally well. I was grateful for the work. We shook hands. I snatched the elbow-length gloves, climbed up on the trailer, and spent the next two hours filling garbage sacks full of wet paper towels that had been marinating in human excrement for days. Afterward, I took off several layers of skin with the bar of Lava Soap that sat above the work sink, and I never saw anyone I worked with at that job again.

Anyway, for the cognoscenti out there reading all of this, I know what you’re probably thinking – how could I, an otherwise capable and well-intentioned young man, have let myself be exploited like this? Voluntarily submitting to the most distasteful whims of my employer is exactly the kind of false consciousness that allows the capitalist machinery to be greased with the blood of vulnerable youth.

A Real Sign

If it seems like that last bit is a joke, it’s not much of one. I got my first hourly wage job when I was 14 and worked more strange and demanding jobs as a young man than I can possibly remember. That’s a pretty common experience for my Gen X peers. As I get older, I hate to default to variations on “get off my lawn” and “it builds character,” but you can imagine my reaction to the emerging idea that teenagers working is exploitation.

Right now, Iowa is considering an “extreme child labor bill, which would allow kids as young as 14 to work in meatpacking and construction,” in the words of “More Perfect Union,” a leftist media group. In fairness, there have been some recent concerns about child labor violations, but more often than not, those are closely tied to a larger problem of immigration that the people complaining here don’t want to address. What’s more fascinating is how quickly the talking points from groups opposed to this legislation shifted away from kids working in supposedly dangerous industries to being shocked that teenagers work in… fast food.

Here’s More Perfect Union highlighting a viral TikTok, where a man is shocked to learn that one of the people working at a Chick-fil-A is 13 years old. The kid explains his father owns the restaurant, so he’s able to skirt the rule requiring him to be 14 for a work permit in most places:

And here’s a former Bernie Sanders delegate informing us that “Chick-fil-A is not alone in exploiting children for cheap labor. In Iowa, yes, that’s a real sign at a McDonald’s advertising to hire 14&15-yos.”

What’s striking here is the incredulity of these responses. (Yes, I have no trouble believing that’s a real sign.) Have we reached a place where Americans are so – there’s no better word for this – privileged that people can claim to be shocked and upset by the idea that 14-year-olds are working at McDonald’s?

The depressing answer here is a resounding “yes.” Younger generations of Americans simply haven’t gone out and gotten jobs as teenagers the way previous generations have. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 1978 and 2016 the teen labor force participation rate in the summer fell from 72 percent to 43 percent. What’s more, of the teenagers that were unemployed in the summer, less than 9 percent said they were looking for work.

It’s hard to understate how novel and alien the idea of unemployed teenagers is in human history. In his book “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance,” Ben Sasse notes, “As late as the 1870s, when industrialization had already begun squeezing out many apprenticeships and smaller skilled trades, it is estimated that children between the ages of 10 and 19 were still providing at least one-third of family income.”

Now, however, a substantial percentage of Americans have come of age without either the cultural or financial incentives to go to work as teenagers, so naturally we have a lot of people with no frame of reference who view the prospect of making kids work menial jobs as exploitative rather than formative.

This stance against teens working at McDonald’s produces an odd contradiction here on one side of the political spectrum – kids can read graphic depictions of sex acts in the school library and even permanently surgically mutilate their bodies based on their feelings, but paying them to work is exploiting inchoate children who don’t know better.

In any event, I have to applaud New York Magazine’s Sarah Jones for gamely trying, and quite decisively failing, to reconcile this contradiction in a recent piece, “Children Are Not Property: The idea that underlies the right-wing campaign for ‘parents’ rights.’” Jones argues that parents trying to assert control of their children’s education and protect them from a predatory gender cult are motivated by fear of losing autonomy over their children. At the same time, that impulse to control their kids is the reason why red states are now passing laws making it easier for teenagers to get jobs.

“In each case, conservatives betray a conviction that a child is the property of parents. Because parents own their children, they can dispose of the child as they see fit,” writes Jones. “They can deny them evidence-based medical care. They can put a child to work.”

Set aside the incendiary ideas about kids being “property” or the fact that the “evidence-based medical care” for kids Jones refers to is rejected by several progressive European countries. There’s an obvious problem with Jones’ argument here. If parental authority is toxic – or at least the authority of parents guilty of wrongthink – who should be ultimately responsible for helping children develop into productive adults?

“Children aren’t private property, then, but a public responsibility. To expand our democratic project to children is to grant them the security the right seeks to deny them: education, health care, shelter, food,” writes Jones. If parents can’t be trusted, well, we can always count on the fact that Big Brother is infallible and all-powerful. Trust him to provide your education, health care, shelter, and food, and he will give you what you deserve – good and hard.

In any event, Jones is at least honest about how she reached these suspect conclusions. “There is no way to control a child forever. My parents learned that much,” she writes. “I hid books from them and discovered different ways of thinking through literature and furtive online searching. In relatively short order, I became an atheist and a socialist…”

Suffice it to say, relitigating your own unhappy childhood is a terrible basis for a political program, to say nothing of how humiliating it is to remain smug and oblivious to the fact your beliefs are defined by your self-evident immaturity.

Clean Hands and Pure Hearts

Speaking of immaturity, the fact that large numbers of Americans made it to adulthood with a comfortable lifestyle divorced from any understanding of the effort needed to sustain it has obviously disturbing cultural and political implications. There’s now a Reddit community known as “Antiwork” that has 2.5 million members “for those who want to end work, are curious about ending work, want to get the most out of a work-free life, want more information on anti-work ideas and want personal help with their own jobs/work-related struggles.”

Now I acknowledge that younger generations are being screwed economically in alarming ways. As of last month, baby boomers were still the largest cohort of home buyers in America. America’s once-vaunted economic mobility is obviously stunted compared to the past, and fixing this may well require some drastic political solutions.

But, while acknowledging the limits of dealing in generational generalizations, it is also hard to be sympathetic to a cohort of people that never needed jobs as teenagers, have developed toxic attitudes toward work broadly, and are now making a hard-left political turn as a result. Taken to its logical extreme, the results of trying to divorce work from the economy are self-evidently absurd. And yet the anti-work ethos is so strong that every day online, there’s some bitter Zoomer sincerely proposing ideas such as “Sex Work As ‘Mutual Aid’ Under Communism.”

The truth is that one does not wake up one day at age 21 understanding the value of work and what it takes to be productive toward your personal goals. Working as a teenager, ideally a time when you still have some adult guidance at home, goes a long way toward cultivating those skills — even if the jobs most teenagers do aren’t necessarily validating, aren’t always well-paid, and are sometimes just bad experiences.

Learning to overcome your circumstances by reconciling effort and achievement is a pretty necessary life skill, to say nothing of learning to accept that we are all called to varying degrees to do work that we do not want to do. The fact large numbers of Americans apparently feel work is solely about personal fulfillment, not an end in and of itself, is an ominous sign for the future.

Some years back in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell and his role advising Henry VIII, I stumbled across this observation: “Somewhere — or Nowhere, perhaps — there is a society ruled by philosophers. They have clean hands and pure hearts. But even in the metropolis of light there are middens and manure-heaps, swarming with flies. Even in the republic of virtue you need a man who will shovel up the sh-t.”

Well, I am proud to say I have been that man doing the shoveling, even if I am not eager to do it again. If nothing else, spending a few hours sifting through piles of human excrement turned out to be far better preparation for a career in journalism than I could have imagined.

I genuinely do sympathize with the plight of young people who are unhappy about their perceived lack of options, and I would tell them that the cliché people like to dish out about “do what you love” is generally good career advice. Just bear in mind, you’ll never know the true meaning of “do what you love” until you learn to love what must be done.

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