Monday, September 2, 2013

The Necessity of Work

My first job was as a clerk at our neighborhood variety store. I guess they’re called “convenience” stores now. It was my first year in high school. I walked in. Asked for the manager. Asked for a job. And started the next day! It lasted for a week, until the day that my mother demanded to know why I was getting home so late from school! Since you didn’t ignore my mother’s requests, I told her. At which point, she snatched me up and walked us right into that store and up to the manager: “Thank you, but she can’t work! She’s 12-years-old!”

Those were the days when, as a child, just because you wanted something didn’t mean that you would automatically get it. And having money was an ever-illusive dream. You could scheme and beg all you wanted, but there was nothing for it, except to find a job. But, first you had to wait to be 16. Even then, pickings were slim.

Ray Kroc was just beginning his march to dominate what became the fast food industry. At that time there were few opportunities for teenagers, especially girls, to get a job. For those who did staff the counters to make sure “you could have it your way,” there was also a bit of pride passed from older patrons to young workers. That little smile that said, “Good for you!”

More and more, I'm coming to think that those types of interactions cement the work ethic for young people on the verge of emerging into the world on their own. To be meaningfully employed, also gained the approval of the community. A state of grace that made you walk taller and feel you could take control of your own life. Important moments in the transition to adulthood. But, times change.

There is a discouraging trajectory that brings us to the current state of employment opportunities for teenagers. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the unemployment rate for those 16 years and older in the year I was born was 3.9%. In 1983 it was 9.6%. I remember that recession. It was the first time that I gave thought to the racial disparities in unemployment percentages. That 9.6% was more like 15% in the Black community.  In 2012, the unemployment rate for those 16 years and older was 8.1%. These figures, of course, ebb and flow. Still, in August, 2013, for White teenagers and Black teenagers, the unemployment rates were 20% and 41.6%, respectively. There is little on the horizon that would indicate the likelihood of change for the better any time soon.

Jobs, at a time of unprecedented corporate growth and profits, should be plentiful. However, outsourcing has changed the structures of U.S. employment opportunity, notably in the replacement of teenagers by adults in the most visible service jobs. Looking at this chart from the New York Times, I remember seeing very few teenagers working at these “fast food venues” and stores compared to adults. It is a fact that has given spark to the recent demands for a raise in the minimum wage and working conditions among service workers. And that fight is well and good.

But, what about the teens? How will we introduce them to the world of work and provide a balance, and maybe ballast, to their media-driven aspirations to live the lifestyles of the rich and famous?

I won’t subject you to my rant about the quality of U.S. education, but I would like to share a program that is looking to prepare urban youth for work in the 21st Century. You’ll find them at Blue 1647 is a Tech + Entrepreneurship Incubator in Chicago, IL focusing on tech education, people development, and entrepreneurial events. Their company overview states that “Blue 1647 is a place where diverse people working for a better world can quickly access relationships and support to bring their ideas to life."

I think it is this potential that gives value to work, and how work spurs human development. It confirms one's ability to bring ideas to life.

Happy Labor Day!

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