The Inestimable Advantages of Child Labour


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 job 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. 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 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).  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.

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.

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?

Answer…this happens:

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 younger, the better.


  1. I don’t have kids, but if/when I do you can believe they’ll be working at a pretty young age. I didn’t have my first paid gig till I was 16 but worked for my Dad (unpaid of course) for many years before that. Instant discipline.

  2. Too true. We often talk about creating “simulated hardship” for our little ones . We plan on it being yes we can afford those trainers/new dress etc but we’re going to pretend like we can only contribute X and your going to have to find a way to make up the rest….anyway…we have a good decade before we start those conversations for real…

    Life is tough….the snowflakes of today’s youth haven’t a clue…if some shit hit the fan and we all find ourselves in the walking dead, jemima and jasper ain’t making it past the pilot.

  3. bloomingheck · · Reply

    Love it. I also worked a number of low paid, formative jobs when I was a youngster including pub cleaner and working in a launderette. When I was at Uni I worked a Saturday job on a market stall in Camden market in London. That was very formative indeed. I now run my own gardening business working for high end clients and one of my favourite parts of the job is figuring out if a new client is a PAW or a UAW. A lot of the baby boomers are PAWs with UAW offspring and as they are all starting to die off now the UAW offspring are going on massive spending sprees with their parents’ carefully accumulated wealth which is excellent for my business and endlessly fascinating to observe.

  4. Survivor · · Reply

    My first b*tchslap from reality came ironically & so appropriately in school, heirarchies, injustice, bonfires of vanities, it was all there. In the same way that living in Rome is like living in one big archeological site, so you don’t have to go anywhere for that, then a decent-sized school has no need for a drama department. When the authority figures turned their backs, it was Lord of the flies, only interrupted by breaks …like learning everything you needed about life on fast forward & it never failed to amuse me later in corporate life how nothing had really changed from sandpit politics.

    One thing still stuns me today for example, was how a director of QA whose single greatest point of existence was to steer us through Govt. inspections was somehow on holiday or off sick whenever they happened, leaving a minion paid a fraction of his wage to take the pain. What’s the difference between that & ducking school on the Monday you knew you were going to be caned or the class sociopath was stalking you & chemistry class was a bad place for that to all come together?

    I have a friend who works in a rich private school, who says he can see the exact age [13/14] when the kids’ behaviour towards staff changes totally – they have just understood their power – they now realise who is servant class and don’t even bother with eye contact because it would be a waste of their time. They know they don’t even need to work and so there’s no need to learn social skills to get what you want …..if their situation changes later though that could seriously backfire on them

    I totally agree that you need to vaccinate your kids against the dark side of life through sh*t work, it’s a great analogy & equally effective, those early lessons never leave you precisely because they’re the foundational ones. I felt sorry for the poorer kids at the time whose destiny was to be trapped in those jobs until they die ….after I’d escaped.

  5. I really liked the bit that you “could be under-performing in one job yet walk into another, higher paid one with better conditions and nicer people. ”
    My experience is that I’ve taken the initiative and moved on from jobs and I’ve been stuck in jobs I didn’t like (once waiting for over 2 years for my boss to move onto a new job – total waste of time and a bad idea from me.
    What to expect in the job market and subtleties is something that some people know (or are told) and others find out too late to their detriment).
    (like, how you should ask for a better pay offer and not just accept what your given).

    Great article!

  6. I’m on board – I had to fight with my parents to be allowed to get a job – they only relented when I finished school. Although looking back on it, they probably wanted to avoid having to play parent taxi all the time – public transport sucked where I grew up.

  7. Living Cheap In London · · Reply

    Another East Anglian lad here. Our childhoods were so very similar in regards to this young work: i did a potato packing plant for a year on saturday mornings (spuds for different supermarkets – looked all the same to me: just they stopped the production line & put a different bag on the packing machine!), then tried my hand in a chilled fruit & veg packing facility – stickers on wrapped lettuces & cucumbers etc. The latter was cold but you were paid more than the potato place as a result, so it was worth the change & extra effort for me. Wages were like yours – about £1.15/hr i think it was.

  8. Hard work gives me the advantage over those who have greater skills than myself. I can work the face off anyone more skilled than myself

  9. slackinv · · Reply

    Another great “think piece” Escape Artist. Your text ” .. and character is built like a muscle: with weight and with reps.” really resonated with me – It is true that these human interactions are like. bricks that build the person.

    Another great advantage of work for children is that they have someone other than their parents telling them what to do – By the time that they are 14 or 15, each teenager is usually tuned out to their parents recommendations.

  10. My brother and I were “subsidised” kids, and still are to a certain extent. I’m nearing mid-forties with kids of my own and am getting better at managing money, however my brother is living my parents again and they are still paying for his car repairs! I wish they didn’t always bail us out. It takes an awful lot of willpower not to take the money when it’s handed to you.

    My kids are young, but I’ve already started to teach them about money and how they will have to earn it (and invest it). My son is delighted at the prospect of investing and has nearly saved up enough to open an investment account. So proud.

    1. I can understand what you say – I have some relatives who are freeloaders in their 30’s and you could tell when they were kids that they were spoilt (and with time spoilt doesn’t get any better).

      As a parent myself, I wonder what sort of example I’ll give to my children…

  11. Fatbritabroad · · Reply

    I come from a wealthy family but my dad is self made. I went to private school but i was always taught the value of money. I worked from being 16 as a bar cellar man and cleaner. Washing up in the kitchen then barman. I totally agree pubs are great training grounds. I think one of the reasons I’m a good sales man is i can literally talk to anyone. That came from bar work.
    I’ve never taken anything of my parents bar 4k help towards my first house and that was after saving 15k myself. Dad’s retired now and i have just accepted help for the first time age 37. He gave me 15k to get the mortgage ltv i wanted to fix my mortgage as i was slightly short (I’ve got the money but it’s invested and I wanted to keep it that way and didn’t want to use my emergency fund) . He’s also lending me the money to do my kitchen but again I already have this it’s just in the market and he’s happy to do it. Even now i can’t borrow money i couldn’t pay back tomorrow (and dad’s worth about 3 million net so I’m pretty sure he can afford it)

  12. Hi Barney

    Enjoyed your article today.

    This stuff is so true – when we look at graduate cvs I won’t interview anyone who hasn’t had a job yet. And I much prefer real world stuff to an internship. Much more chance that they will get on with working hard, showing up on time and not giving you any hassle.

    Hope all well with you


  13. DixonBainbridge · · Reply

    As a kid who was a teenager in the late 90s, I was always annoyed that most of my friends got given pocket money each week yet I had to earn mine. I thought it was so unfair. While they were handed money for nothing I was out doing a paper round, working on a market stool before school, cleaning boats on the weekend and various other jobs.

    Of course, looking back I’m so glad that I had to do this as I fully appreciate the value of money and hard work. And while I’m by no means rich, I am completely debt free with significant savings. And the friends who had everything handed to them? They are pretty much in debt up to their eyeballs.

    I will always be grateful for my parents for that life lesson as a youngster.

  14. Absolutely agree of the value of holding mini jobs early to prepare for a career. Personally I added international experience to my job criteria during Uni and picked my career in places far away and unknown to me. I was a kitchen hand, cleaner, worked in construction, as a social dance teacher, editor, graphics designer, webmaster, banker, and on the local recycling yard before even commencing my career as a management consultant. All across 4 countries. I collected a breadth of experience holding basic jobs and look back with a smile on those days now.

  15. My first job in school holidays was pea picking on a South Cambridgeshire farm in the village where I grew up. The thing is, you weren’t paid by the hour – it was piece work and you were paid 50p for each seemingly massive bag of peas that was produced, and it seemed to take ages. It taught me that you had to put in effort on a job. There were some women who did this job every year and they were like machines running down the field consuming the plants, so they weren’t bothered by a few kids taking some work off them. I think I made about £40 that summer which was a lot to me then in the late 1970s.

  16. Great article and thanks for @peakGuardian – I’ve been bereft ever since @SoMuchGuardian stopped tweeting.

    You absolutely nailed it though – there is so much to gain from starting in your teens and starting with, frankly, undesirable jobs. I didn’t particularly enjoy my £2.15 p/h shifts in a garden centre, warehouse temp work or work in Marstons’s grandest, most fragrant brewery but I got a lot out of it.

    At the most base level, a desire to move up in the world. Building up the stamina of character to keep working when you want to say sod it. The treasure of delayed gratification (when you’re 17 and the money is 3 weeks away, the kegs were always a bit heavier). I’d also add humility – if you’ve worked as a waitress, you have empathy for people doing the job: it kills snobbery, because you’ve been in her shoes. It gives you insight into the average person’s grind, which is super important when you’re otherwise in an air conditioned office working at a computer.

  17. BuyInTheDip · · Reply

    Excellent post. And this resonates massively with me.

    I am a child of 1950’s immigrants. Immigrants that literally walked a couple of miles to school barefoot in their home country. They knew the value of hard work whilst keeping a smile on their face. When coming to England they never took one penny in benefits even when times got bad. Truly the salt of the earth and an inspiration.

    Anyway, they instilled into us kids a solid work ethic. I was never given any pocket-money but told to go out an earn it as “I’d appreciate it more”. My first job was working in the back-office of the local chippy. I sat on a stool tasked with cutting the eyes from the machine-peeled spuds before they went in the chipper. An oddly therapeutic mission that paid well at £4 for a 7-11pm shift.

    But I can admit it now, I moonlighted. I had a paper-round as well where I would ask the deliverees if they wanted any letters putting in the post box on my return trip to the newsagent. This would boost my £2.75 weekly paper round wage by at least 50p.

    Every second Sunday, I used to get the bus to Villa Park to line up across the pitch with about 19 other lads and, spaced out, walk slowly in a line from one end of the pitch to the other repairing the divots from the previous day’s game. It paid £5 which was the top paying of the three jobs. This would have stood me in good stead if I’d ever joined the police force and had to do one of those crime scene searches.

    But it doesn’t finish there. I also had a car-washing round with my mate. In an early example of reward-versus-effort analysis, we specifically targeted homes with those little blue mobility cars that were around at the time. They were an easy “sell”, could be washed quickly and we could charge the same as a regular car (this was a bit of a pain in at ar*e though, as we had to trek miles between jobs wasting valuable time).

    I would like to say that the money was invested and left to compound so I could RE but sadly not. Most of my money went on Marvel comics from the USA. Had to get a bus into the city centre to visit a specialist sci-if shop to buy them.

    All in all, these early experience have built the “muscle” that TEA talks about; resilience, persistence, diplomacy and nouse skills that serve you well when you get a proper career. These become part of your character and reputation (and your reputation is the most valuable commodity you will ever have).

  18. latenightreader · · Reply

    I worked on and off occasional jobs from 13-18 but only ever the occasional day here and there in a farm shop, or babysitting etc. Seemed fun, got money, never felt the drudgery of it.

    At 18 I decided to take a gap year and travel. My parents were fine with that, but certainly weren’t up paying for me to have a jolly so I had to fund it myself. Went down to the job centre, scrolled through all the jobs and found one as an NHS receptionist and administrator which paid way more than the equivalent jobs in the private sector, so I applied for it. This was undoubtedly the best decision I’ve ever made. I HATED it. I was screamed at daily by irate patients, had a phone thrown at my head, ploughed through hours of tedious pointless bureaucracy and had to deal with some GPs with spectacular egos (and some nice ones). I immediately cut my spending down to a fraction as everything was calculated in hours of misery and suddenly I didn’t want that new dress because it didn’t seem worth 4 hours of my misery. After 6 months I knew I never wanted to work a shitty office job with no escape again. I left, had a great time travelling and entered university with far more ambition than I’d have had straight out of school and some extreme frugal habits.

    Recommend a gap year to everyone now. Not for the mind-expanding benefits of travel and meeting new people, but for the experience of a long stint of shit work with no half-terms or alternating with something more fun (school/uni) so you know you never want to be in that position again.

    1. I’m loving all these comments… 🙂

  19. Some terrible jobs I’ve done over the my teenage years:
    Leaflet delivering
    Paper boy
    CD packing factory
    River Island shoe sales for £2.65/hour (terrible wage at the time!)
    Kitchen Porter (was at actually at Uni at the time so your boy is already ahead of me on this one 🙂 )

    +Tonnes of temp jobs over the holidays while back from Uni including, some where you would just be sent off to random places on the day. I would usually be riding a bike so sometimes would involve a long commute!

    Can’t agree enough how much character and other benefits this must have given me (especially having empathy with people in these jobs as others have mentioned…. Don’t be unnecessarily rude to waitresses etc!!!)

    Of course people from a generation or two earlier would probably scoff at our “Hard jobs” and were calling us pansies for moaning about our easy paper round of just the 200 papers… when they were probably shoveling coal or something like that 🙂

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