Funky Jobs and Life Lessons

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Midlife is a funny thing sometimes.

In my mind, I am still young enough to feel like my youth is not so far behind me, yet I am constantly amazed that more and more of what comes out of my mouth sounds exactly like my grandparents when they were my age.

Case in point: The other day, as I was lunching with an old friend at Fashion Island, she worried out loud that she was having a hard time getting her teenage kids to buy in to getting a job, even just a part-time one. She felt they needed some outside responsibility, but said they mistakenly thought most of the jobs they qualified for were “demeaning.” She worried that her kids were becoming part of the “entitlement” generation that think dollar bills grow on trees …. or worse, that the government would take care of things for them.

We talked about when we were their age and the fun and funky jobs we worked. We talked with passion about how work ethic was part of the fabric that not only built our immigrant families, but helped build our country.

I started to wonder how working, or not, has become so polarizing in today’s world and, the faltering economy aside, what lessons kids are cheated out of when they don’t become part of the workforce early on.

When I was in my tweens, my first job was cleaning my grandmother’s house for a few bucks a week. She would watch me like a hawk as I dusted the bookshelves, vacuumed the carpet, mopped the kitchen floor and yes, cleaned all the toilets. She taught me the correct way to make a bed, fold linens, starch and iron my grandfather’s handkerchiefs – basic stuff. But after it was all done, we’d sit down and have some quality time together and her influence on my life because of that “work” continues to this day.

By the time I was 15, my parents gave me permission to work after school and on the weekends at the Del Taco that was about a mile and a half walk from home. Though I didn’t especially like coming home smelling like fast food, what I did like was the newfound freedom I had by earning an honest wage, and because hindsight is mostly 20/20, all the lessons I learned along the way.

It occurred to me as I was talking with my friend, that the argument about work ethic or lack thereof cannot really be had unless one considers the important lessons young people learn when they take a job, any job. And it really doesn’t matter what side of the tracks we come from, either. I have plenty of friends who grew up with the proverbial “silver spoon” in their mouths who spent their youth waking before dawn to clean horse stalls and slop pigs.

What were those lessons I learned?  Well, for starters I improved my basic math skills. I wasn’t great at arithmetic, but we were required to count back change, and after a while, I would challenge myself to do the math in my head before punching the buttons on the register mostly just to keep any boredom at bay.

I learned listening and communication skills. Having to take an order from a soccer mom with a car full of hungry kids was no small challenge. I would repeat the order back, confirming back what she’d told me, practicing committing things to memory.

My boss was the only other taskmaster I knew outside of my immediate family, and I learned how to punch a time clock, and to be on time … or else!

I learned about setting goals. Counting the days, hours and minutes until I was to turn 16, I had my learner’s permit, and couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license and have my very own car. So my parents made a deal with me; if I earned at least half, they would match the cost of the car I could afford to buy. Talk about motivation, I watched as my paychecks accumulated, knowing that on the other end of making all those burritos was going to be my reward. I’ll never forget the first day I drove that car home all on my own, a smile as broad as my face.

But it got better! Now that I had my car, I could drive to the mall. I quickly turned in my polyester Del Taco outfit and traded up to a job at a much cooler retail store where I not only made more money, but got a decent discount on cute clothes!  This work thing really worked!

Most importantly, along the way, if things went awry – as they always do – I learned problem-solving skills and how to stand on my own two feet, to admit when I was wrong, and to gracefully accept praise when I did well.

I realize the economy is a challenge, but robbing young people of the intrinsic life lessons learned by joining the workforce is really a great loss to us all.

Lynn Selich resides in Newport Beach. Contact her at


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  1. Lynn, seemingly there were more jobs then for teenagers: deliverring newspapers, summer construction, busboys, waiters/waitresses, babysitting. Today many of those jobs are not available because of HR concerns (e.g. Newspaper routes, summer construction) or “you have to speak Spanish fluently” (e.g. Bussing/servers). Most retailers are now even reluctant to hire teens for fear they will offend a client base that is increasingly senior citizen. I agree with your fundamental thesis; namely that working during summer vacations and Christmas holidays is a wonderful, mind expanding experience, but it IS more difficult today to find a job than when we were young.