My husband Olof’s parents and mine were similar in many ways and the one precept which they both held most dear was the intrinsic value of child labor. No job was too menial or too boring if it paid.
Over the years, I did the standard babysitting, retailing, and waitressing ($.53 an hour, $.45 after taxes, gold nylon uniform: $20). I spent one summer as a parking lot attendant in the Jersey Shore's blazing sun and another as a clerk-typist for Scholastic Magazines in their book division in the pre-word processor days typing endless clean copies (with eight carbons) of a book called No Hitter about all the no-hitter baseball games up to that point. (It's on Amazon for $.01, and, no, don't send me a copy. I've read it. Eleven times.) I hate to start comments with the words "kids today", but truly, kids today have no idea what a boon to humanity the word processor was. Space travel and penicillin have nothing on it. I can say with some conviction: a world without carbon paper truly is a better place.
Olof and I used to like to play "who had the worst summer job?" One thing about horrible jobs is that wretchedness quickly becomes relative. Olof worked one summer as a roofer in the East Bay's brutal 100-degree summer heat in a perpetual knee-crippling crouch position pounding nails hour after hour. The next summer, concluding that anything indoors had to be better, he scored a job as summer vacation help cleaning toilets at the Pittsburgh, California steel mill. Even though it required an investment in a hard hat and steel-toed boots, it was out of the hot sun and paid union wages. Relative to roofing, what was not to like?
My worst summer job by far was proofreading telephone books. And yes, this is a job, and yes, for some people it was a career. People get really touchy if their name or address or particularly, phone number is listed incorrectly in the phone book, so some human - that would have been me - sat there cross-checking the microscopically-printed galleys line by line with the typewritten list. I've observed over the years that career counselors don't list ninety percent of jobs that people actually end up doing. I'm trying to imagine, for example, some perky high school student's yearbook listing; "Future goal: career in the telephone book proofreading field."
For both sets of our parents, summer employment provided cash for the expenses we were expected to pay, but I think they regarded it as character building as well. Not that I was ever inclined to be rude to waiters or sales clerks, but working in those fields gives you a new respect for the job. Forget two years mandatory military service. Everybody should be required to work retail.
I mention all this because I often hear parent say at this time of year that they don't think it's worth having their kids take a $10 an hour menial job when they could be doing something educational. Both Olof's and my parents would have said that it's all how you define "educational."
Of course, there's no requirement that summer jobs have to be ill-paid and boring even if many of them are. My older son, a diver, was lucky enough to combine a life passion with income by supplying giant keyhole limpets to a Scripps Oceanography researcher. And a high paying job can be pretty miserable too as my younger son discovered during a career-goal-changing Summer From Hell working 100-hour weeks for an investment banking firm. Still, I think some of the best education he received was three summers earlier working as minimum wage juice bar employee delivering custom wheat grass combinations to downtown La Jolla business folks. He said he's never felt so invisible.
So are we better or even different people for our summer job experience? Different, certainly. Both Olof and I would agree that most of our summer jobs were excellent incentives to pursue higher education in the hope of never ever doing any of these jobs again. Just as important as knowing what you want to do in life is knowing what you really really don't.