By Jeff Woodburn
It’s summer and the kids are out of high school and home from college, but what are they doing? For the vast majority teenagers — more than two-thirds — the answer is nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Studies reveal that as few as a quarter of all students aged 16-24 work summer jobs. The number of young people temporarily joining the workforce has declined consistently from about 50 percent a decade ago. The economy and demographics are certainly a factor as is the "product development" mentality that sends many kids to specialized camps when they're younger or unpaid internships when they're older.
I would presume it has more to do with our prevalent culture of comfort and abundance that has become the norm for people of widely varying economic conditions. Beyond the short-term money, menial summer employment gives young people a sense of responsibility, humility and rare common sense. Academic settings are hardly equipped to provide the tough love and simple truths that come from a few summers at the college of hard knocks.
This year, like many teenagers before him, my 14-year old son landed a summer job at the iconic White Mountain theme-park Santa's Village, where generations of youngsters before him developed important social, employment skills along the way, and had a lot of fun and freedom. Unlucky by almost every economic standard, Coos County is a great place to get summer job with a plethora of tourist-related seasonal job opportunities enhanced by a rapidly aging population and a declining labor pool.
While in high school and college, I had several different jobs, including a cemetery landscaper, janitor, factory worker, dishwasher and carpenter’s helper. I learned as much in these jobs as in any classroom. It was at my earliest job at the cemetery where I got some inkling of what life had in store for me. Every so often, an old vacant graveside would need to be opened up for a new burial. The old lots were too tight for a backhoe to fit around the old tombstones, so I’d have to dig the grave by hand. One day waist-high in hole, I encountered a large rock that seemed immovable to me and my puny efforts. I went to the sexton and explained the finality of the situation. I was off the hook, or so I thought. I was told matter-of-factly that it couldn’t stay there, and I had to get it out – one way or another. I dug, chipped and cussed away at the impossibility of this chore, but finally I got it out. I don’t remember any satisfaction or epiphany from this experience — only an aching discomfort.
I recall the dreary rhythm of the night shift at the old paper mill, degrading looks from some of my dorm-mates as I cleaned their toilets, the rigid and demeaning social segregation that once defined the grand hotels, and trying to avoid the scorn of a hot-headed chef and a quarrelsome old carpenter.
Mostly, these jobs made me feel insignificant, often inadequate and easily replaceable. They hardly added to my intellect or training, but they made me tough when dealing with adversity and tender when faced with human frailty. It has mostly served me well by humbling me in success and sustaining me in failure. It is these lessons that our kids need most.
Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield, is a freelance writer, former teacher and the North Country's State Senator.