This week in North Philly Notes, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, author of Consuming Work, writes about youth labor, an important element of our modern economy.
On this bitterly cold day, Josh, like many other teenagers, traveled many miles to get to work. Despite experiencing car troubles, nearly having a car accident, and spending hours in heavy traffic, he arrived at the coffee shop where he works part-time only—to do a double shift, carry heavy loads of garbage in the cold, and deal with a hectic day of selling hot beverages to shivering customers.
Even though his school was in session, he chose to come to work instead of going to class at the local college, where he is getting his degree in theater and humanities. When I asked him why he chose his work over his studies, he told me they need him here: “Nobody notices when I am not [in class].” Unlike at school, they notice him at work. He feels needed—like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold day.
Josh, like many other teenagers, works “part-time” while still in school, but do not be fooled by what he calls “part-time” work. “Part-time” sounds like a few hours of work scattered throughout the week, but he was at the coffee shop every day of the past week. Even on the days when he was not scheduled to work, he stopped by to hang out with his friends. He did not just stand idly by; he also helped the friends who were working. He is one of many young people who fold sweaters in clothing stores, pour our morning coffees, wait on us in restaurants, and serve us in many service and retail sector jobs. Yet Josh differs greatly from our traditional conceptions of young workers. For most of us, the terms “child labor” or “youth labor” evoke images of unventilated sweatshops in the developing world or the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels. Yet contrary to popular belief, not only is youth labor widespread in the United States; it is an important element of our modern economy.
With his spiky blond hair, fashionable clothes, and brand-new cell phone, Josh looks nothing like the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels, nor does he fit the conventional definition of a service or retail worker in our contemporary economy. Typical service and retail sector jobs in which young people are employed are “bad jobs”: routine jobs with low wages, part-time hours, few or no benefits, no autonomy, and limited opportunities for advancement. Normally, we would assume the teenagers, who take these bad jobs are the poor teenagers, who desperately need these jobs for survival—to put themselves through school or perhaps help their families. What is really surprising is, only in America teenagers, who work tend to be more affluent.
Affluent teenagers say they work to meet new people in the suburbs and hang out with their friends without the supervision of adults. They also work because they want to be associated with cooler brands. Even if the pay is better and the working conditions are nicer many teens don’t want to work for mom and pop places, they want to work for cooler brands—especially ones where they are avid consumers of. “If I shop there, I’ll work there” is a motto for many young people.
Many companies actively seek out these young and affluent workers. These young, attractive workers, who are already devoted fans of their products “look good and sound right.” They become ideal faces of the products they are selling. Besides, they do not care about the low wages, limited hours and the odd schedule.
As affluent young people want to work for social reasons or for the brand prestige, the ones who really need these part-time jobs are often shut out of the system. As “looking good and sounding right” become important components of service sector jobs, many young people from the inner cities have trouble finding jobs, or settle for fast-food positions.