Last week, an eleven-year-old hero meticulously pushed his way into the national spotlight, intending to inspire America and “show the nation what young people like me are ready for.” I’m referring, of course, to Frank Giaccio, the budding entrepreneur from Virginia who asked President Trump if he could mow the White House lawn. “I have been mowing my neighbors’ lawns for some time,” he wrote, offering weed-whacking services in addition to a waiver of his usual $8 fee.
On Friday, Giaccio got his wish: He showed up, industriously mowed the lawn, wowed the nation with his laser-like focus, and provided some amusing Trump-meets-boy viral video clips in the process. Alas, not everyone was delighted. Former New York Times labor reporter and apparent occasional wet blanket Steven Greenhouse, for one, was unimpressed. “Not sending a great signal on child labor, minimum wage & occupational safety,” he declared on Twitter. He was being serious.
Laugh if you will, but when it comes to putting kids to work, Greenhouse is not alone. Using surveys of 8.3 million 13- to 19-year olds between 1976 and 2016, a new study published in Child Development reports that in addition to significant delays in “adult” activities like driving and dating, only 56 percent of America’s high-school seniors have ever worked for pay.
If you’re like me, perhaps you needed to read that statistic twice. If you wish, you can helpfully insert a dramatic record scratch or over-the-top lonely foghorn sound here.
Almost half of high-school seniors, to repeat, have never held a job. How is this possible? Who are their parents? Who takes out the proverbial papers and the trash, and where do kids get their spending cash? I already pay my son to drop large coffee-table books on the occasional terrifying oversized bugs that wander into the house, and he’s not even in kindergarten. Attention, fellow cowards: It’s a win-win.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had worked as a dog walker, a babysitter, a sandwich-shop employee, and a largely incompetent waitress. I should add that during one fateful babysitting gig the family’s horse escaped — it was named “Patchy,” and it was not very bright — and I had to chase it down the road and lure it back with only my wits and a piece of cinnamon toast. With that in mind, let’s add “wrangler” to the job list as well.
If the statistics are even close to accurate, for a huge chunk of our nation’s emerging young adults, money is a magical, mysterious thing, inchoate and formless.
Some of these jobs were fun. Some of them were tedious. Some involved being forced to listen to “My Sharona” by The Knack over and over again on a sandwich-shop speaker system while developing a phobia of cold cuts that has lasted to this day. But they were all important, because, in addition to teaching independence, developing a sense of grit, building practical problem-solving skills, and giving me a general sense of how the world works, they also . . . wait for it . . . were how I got money.
If the statistics are even close to accurate, for a huge chunk of our nation’s emerging young adults, money is a magical, mysterious thing, inchoate and formless. It flutters through the Intertubes, powered by wonder and clicks. It simply appears; every day is a free lunch. (My sincere apologies to the increasingly distressed Milton Friedman fans out there. As we all know, nothing is ever “free.”)
But when you’ve never worked for money in your life, can you be expected to assume otherwise? Most of the news coverage surrounding the study, which was authored by Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and Heejung Park of Bryn Mawr College, has focused on the delays in driving, drinking, and dating. But when the rubber hits the road, getting a job — any job, big or small — seems to be the most important neglected milestone of them all.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s because teenagers are more responsible, or more lazy, or more boring,’ but they’re missing the larger trend,” Twenge told the Washington Post. Instead, she argues, there is no survival-based reason to rush into adulthood; this new “life strategy” is a simple response to a slower, calmer environment. “Youths may be less interested in activities such as dating, driving or getting jobs,” the Post story continues, “because in today’s society, they no longer need to be.”
And so we have social media and internships and after-school activities and smartphones and, in some cases, college-prep courses — but for a sizeable chunk of young people, we also have almost zero immersion in the work of the real world, paired with a lack of understanding as to how that world got so slow and relatively cushy in the first place. In a fascinating poll last year, Harvard University found that 51 percent of respondents — all young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 — did not support capitalism. What they wished would replace it was, quite unsurprisingly, unclear.
We don’t “need” to do many things that are good for us, it turns out, nor do we “need” to build persistence — or, for that matter, learn about the way the world works. It’s a pretty good idea to try, though. When it comes to parenting, some of the best advice for kids might also be the simplest: Get a job.