October 23, 2021

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The resurrection of the life-changing summer job

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The writer, a former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

When I was 16 and broke, I borrowed a book from the local library called Teach Yourself To Type. That summer, with 85 words per minute, I became a top typist at the Reed temp agency in Putney High Street. I proudly completed my first three-day posting in two days, bashing furiously away at the keys, only to find that my efficiency had cut both the agency’s fee and my pay. I also learnt — from a week manning a busy reception desk wearing a horrid scratchy uniform — an enduring respect for people who deal with difficult customers and bosses, not just for one summer but for life. 

Holiday jobs teach lessons that schools can’t: the hard graft of earning money and pulling your weight, the “employability” which businesses lament they find lacking in many of today’s graduates and school leavers. I loved one job, at a management consulting firm in London’s Mayfair, because I could read my book under the desk in between answering the phones. Unfortunately, I failed to find out how to transfer calls if more than one arrived at the same time. I still remember the screams of the incredulous senior partner whose client I kept cutting off in my panic. I made a vow always to ask for help — and never shout that way at anyone.

Until this year, it had looked as though the holiday job was becoming extinct. In the US, the number of 16-19 year olds doing a paid summer job fell from 51 per cent in 2000 to only 29 per cent by 2010. In the UK, 43 per cent of 16-17 year olds were studying and working in 1997, but that had halved by 2017. This may be due partly to the profusion of summer schools, and the worthy trend towards volunteering. But since my eldest sons and their friends became teenagers I have come to believe it is also the fault of HR departments which have regarded anyone under 18 as a health and safety hazard, bound to trip over or chop off a finger. Even my most persevering godchild, who went to every café in her local area to find work two years ago, became trapped in the pernicious modern catch-22 of not being able to get a job without “prior experience”, but not being able to acquire experience without a job. 

Suddenly however the teens are coming back into their own. In England this summer, we stay-cationers are being treated to a new sight: of eager pimply youths with nervous smiles, earnestly bringing our espressos to our tables, or learning how to use the till. At a gastropub in Oxfordshire this week I was served by a friendly chap of 15, carrying our plates with the utmost care. The proprietor said he liked the enthusiasm and dedication of teenagers who are keen to get out of the house, having been cooped up with their parents during the pandemic. “They learn a lot faster than we expected”, he said, a little apologetically.

This revolution in attitudes is being wrought, it seems, because employers have little choice. A shortage of adults, combined with the mass reopening of shops and restaurants, is fuelling the need for new, flexible hires. In Ireland, there are reports that a record number of secondary school students are backfilling seasonal roles in agriculture and hospitality which used to be filled by migrants, and adults who are currently receiving pandemic unemployment payments. In the US, the New York Times has called teenagers “the luckiest workers in America” as they sweep into hospitality and retail industries which can’t find enough adults willing to work. A quarter of a million American teenagers got new jobs in April, the biggest share of any age group.

It’s only fair for us to appreciate the merits of teenagers, after the hardship inflicted on them by lockdowns and interrupted schooling. Moreover, they seem to be earning good money. Friends of my children report being able to earn above minimum wage in a range of jobs and being offered inducements to take work, from free food to vouchers. In America, there are fewer unemployed teenagers this summer than at any point over the past six decades and their wages have risen more than 10 per cent in service sector jobs, according to one survey.

We may come to regard this as an enterprising generation, in contrast to its “snowflake” label. Some are even seeking HGV licences, seeing that truck drivers are in high demand. Real, gritty jobs are a world away from the pale-ness of most “work experience”. And longitudinal studies in Australia, the US and UK suggest that teenagers who combine study with part-time work tend to earn more as adults, and suffer fewer periods of unemployment, than their backgrounds and qualifications would suggest. 

Looking back, my days of touch typing seem horribly quaint. But the life lessons from holiday jobs are the same as ever: the value of money, the importance of attitude, that it’s not about you, it’s about pulling your weight. I hope this summer isn’t just a blip, but a resurrection of the holiday job to its rightful status as a rite of passage for kids who deserve a chance at real work, in all its human messiness.

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