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What happened to plain old summer jobs?

Marketplace Staff Aug 1, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Me? I mowed lawns during the summers. Did some housepainting. Odd jobs, mostly. There wasn’t all that pressure back then to develop the resume. Nowadays, though, that’s changed. Teenagers and college kids get internships. They do summer school or advanced placement courses. Commentator Amity Shlaes says we need to get back to the good old days.

AMITY SHLAES: This is camp season, and I was one of the parents who made the trek over to dip a toe in the lake where the kids swim. Then a counselor came along and told me my son was great. Great at what? I wanted to know. Kayaking? Making knots? No, the answer came. He was great at waiting on tables. And he wasn’t bad at busing, either.

Well you couldn’t have made me happier if you told me that boy had a perfect score on his SATs. I was ready to declare it right in public: Birch Rock Camp in Waterford, Maine, is the best place in the world. Every other parent of adolescents will know why. This place was special. Even if my son wasn’t working for money, he was learning how to work. Maybe next he would find a paying job.

But likely as not, he won’t. These days something like 4 in 10 teenagers work, down from close to 6 in 10 in the late ’70s. The problem is not a shortage of jobs. If it were, we wouldn’t be having a national discussion about illegal immigration.

We parents are partly to blame here. We deceive ourselves when it comes to our kids. We say we want the kids to work, but we actually prefer activities that will polish their college resumes. And once they’re in college, we dissemble some more. We pretend that unpaid internships are better than fast-food jobs because we like the way they sound.

But that doesn’t mean postponing work is good. Working is like swimming in the camp lake. It’s scary at first, but the water feels great once you’re in. Suddenly you are receiving money for the same skills that, just yesterday, you paid to practice.

My son just wrote me saying he might try to wait on tables at the restaurant down the road for the rest of the summer. Might. I’ve vowed to help him find a job. If we’re lucky, this time someone will even pay him for it.

RYSSDAL: Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg columnist and author.

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