When you hear “child labour” a few images might pop into your head.
You might see a Dickensian street urchin forced up chimneys to scrub them. Or some grimy faced Lancashire child mill worker from the 1800s. Or a photogenic but dirt poor modern Third World child stitching trainers.
I’m not talking about any of that. So if those images are stopping you from encouraging your children to get paper rounds, Saturday jobs, part-time jobs and the like, then you need to get that stuff out of your head right now.
In our prosperous and incredibly safe lives in the modern West, we seem to have lost sight of The Inestimable Advantages of Child Labour. It’s odd that it falls to The Escape Artist to remind everyone of these.
You see, if your kids don’t get jobs until say 22 (after university plus gap year) then they’ll be at a disadvantage for life. Biologically, they will have been adults for about 6 years already. Yet in their most formative phase of life – where lifelong habits and attitudes are shaped – they’ll never have held down a job. That’s a problem.
My first paid gig was when I was 9 years old. I worked on a farm picking wild oats (weeds) with other kids from the village. This was like getting paid to play with friends in a field (my core skillset back then). It would have happily done it for free. But I got paid! Ker-ching! This was a promising start to my career.
Other than being paid to mow my parents lawn and “Bob a Job” week with the Scouts, I then had a career break / mini-retirement until I was 16, when I got a summer job in a tomato packing warehouse in rural East Anglia.
This was one of those jobs waiting to be done by robots…it was unbelievably boring and repetitive – doing things like sticking labels by hand on punnets of tomatoes passing on a conveyor belt. It was however real…you could see the objective (tomatoes sorted and packed for supermarkets) and you could see the progress (we put the product on pallets ready to ship). You could also see the wages at the end of the week…the pay rates (£1.07 per hour) were a reminder to pass your exams. Bonus: I worked with friends, met new people and we had a laugh.
But that seasonal work couldn’t last for ever. And, as you might imagine, The Escape Artist was dreaming big.
It was time to move up in the world. It was time to work in The Big City. It was time to sell shoes for the Cambridge branch of the now defunct high street footwear emporium Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
I learnt many things in that Saturday job. Mainly, that some jobs really suck. When it was busy, it was very busy. When it was quiet, I had to hoover the floor. The (male) boss seemed like a bit of a bellend who preferred the young female employees…although that could have just been my imagination.
I learned how to iron a shirt. I learned that I didn’t enjoy having a sales target (they tracked our individual sales even though we weren’t paid commission). I also learned about the randomness of business performance. On my first couple of Saturdays, I got lucky. It was busy and I sold a lot of shoes. But, more importantly, I sold a lot of sundries.
The Management view was that any
fucking idiot employee can sell shoes to someone that comes into a shoe shop looking to buy shoes…but the mark of a good salesperson was to be able to sell them shit they didn’t really need sundries such as shoe polish, laces and leather insoles.
Unfortunately, the store manager and other employees had a weak grasp of statistics and, based on a sample size of 2 or 3 Saturdays, I quickly gained an unjustified reputation as a child prodigy that could sell sand to the Arabs and shoe-based sundries to The Good People of Cambridge.
This made things awkward as reversion to the mean played out like a slow motion car-crash over the next couple of months. I had my hours cut. The Young Escape Artist had many flaws but complacency was not one of them. I could see where this was headed. So I decided to dig a well before I was thirsty and find another job before I got fired.
At the time, the Tesco supermarket chain was growing fast. I heard rumours from friends of gold (or at least paid work) in them there hills. So I made my way to the nearest supermarket for an interview.
I was a bit nervous but I managed to answer their questions (Name? Age? etc) satisfactorily. It turned out they would hire anyone with a pulse and an IQ > 50. The Escape Artist was fine on both counts and so was hired on the spot for a 10 hour shift 8am – 6pm on Saturdays with a nice pay bump over what the shoe shop were paying, thank you very much.
Not only had I got a pay increase but I could now cycle to work…meaning no bus fare for the commute…it was gas in the tank and money in the bank. Even better, there were no sales targets. And the other college students provided banter and a network of party opportunities. What was not to like?
This was an early lesson that I could be under-performing in one job yet walk into another, higher paid one with better conditions and nicer people. This felt too good to be true…almost unfair. But life is not always fair. And the labour market is a market.
After I left sixth form and went to university, I got jobs in the holidays. One Christmas holiday, I worked in a pork pie factory.
I worked shifts that started in the middle of the night because my attitude was: why not? If you haven’t cycled your bike on an icy road to a Pork Pie factory in the middle of the night in winter…well, you haven’t lived. As The Fireman said: you have to do whatever it takes. That job was also memorable for the TRIPLE TIME I earned for working New Years Eve. Ker-ching! I felt like I was making out like a bandit.
Then there was the excellent holiday job where I got to drive to every Co-op store in the South East of England and fill the shelves with petcare products. I was mainly unsupervised so I had to solve my own problems (this was before SatNav). As well as paying me, they gave me free use of a nice new van. I still feel a bit bad about crashing that van but, hey, we live and learn.
I could go on but hopefully you get the idea. I’m convinced that getting early and varied exposure to the world of work is one of the greatest gifts a child (more accurately, a young adult) can get.
Fast forward to last week. I was in my local pub having a drink. I watched a mini-drama play out. In the wider scheme of things, it was no big deal. But it was important to me.
One of the customers (a middle aged man) had ordered a burger. The young waitress efficiently brought it over to him with cutlery and with some ketchup. The man wanted mayonnaise instead and got a bit grumpy that the waitress had not read his mind and anticipated this in advance. He was snarkey but the waitress coolly handled the situation without either setting him off or kow-towing to him.
The waitress was my 17 year old daughter and I watched without intervening. She stood her ground and dealt with the situation coolly. I can’t tell you how proud I was of her in that moment (prouder even than I am of her academic achievements). Handling that customer took character and character is built like a muscle: with weight and with reps.
Both in my professional career and in various minimum wage jobs, I’ve seen plenty of employees fail to do the reps. They don’t show up, they get angry, they sulk when given instructions by the boss, fall out with the other employees, have hissy fits when customers failed to show them enough respect…etc etc.
No matter how many whiney articles in The Guardian you might read about income inequality, the obesity crisis, the housing crisis and the avocado toast crisis, the truth is that people are often their own worst enemy.
I can’t tell you how valuable my early job experiences were to me in my later career in finance. If you think that ordinary members of the public can be demanding, try working for a hedge fund client or a private equity client…their expectations are not reasonable. The further you get up the ladder in a profession, the more you are dealing with the outliers, people that are highly intelligent, freakishly motivated and driven.
Currently, my 17 year old daughter and my 15 year old son both work in that pub. As a waitress, my daughter is getting invaluable experience dealing with people. Pubs are gold mines for this: all forms of life are there.
But my son will need to work his way up to waiter… or barman….he’s currently a kitchen porter. This means that he washes dishes and cutlery which is the bottom of the status hierarchy that we sometimes pretend doesn’t exist…whilst knowing damn well that it does.
I’ve popped into the kitchen to see him and the environment is fantastic for a 15 year old boy. He gets to hang around with older guys who are hard-working and have their shit together (at least when they’re at work…restaurant kitchens only work with strict discipline and hard work). He also gets to chat with the other students and the 18 year old waitresses and that won’t do him any harm either.
If you want to teach your children to be rich, they have to get their hands dirty and they have to be able to adapt. It doesn’t matter how many clarinet, ballet or extra French lessons you ferry Jemina and Jasper to, some things can only be learned in the real world. There’s a huge difference between book smarts and street smarts.
Shielding children from reality is lousy parenting. The better way to prepare children for the real world is the same way you protect them against a virus: by vaccination.
Vaccination involves introducing a mild form of the virus into the child’s body. The child’s immune system then learns how to deal with the pathogen. Same with work: you introduce a part time job early on and they learn how to cope with it effectively. End result: the child is safer, more resilient and able to adapt.
Subsidising children is dangerous if they think they’ll always be bailed out. Question: What happens when parents shield their children from work and real life as long as possible?
Want more evidence? Read The Millionaire Next Door and learn how “economic outpatient care” damages the children of the affluent.
This is why many family businesses implode. The first generation hustles, takes risk and works incredibly hard. But if the second or third generations get pampered, they grow up lazy, spendy and complacent. And they blow it.
If you want the best for your child, encourage them to get a part time job. The earlier, the better.
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