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Ode To Terrace North

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Kay Hymowitz writes in this morning’s Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about the dying out of the menial summer job and the rise of the unpaid internship, and the loss that evolution in young adult employment means:

The menial summer job gave many kids their first paycheck and the feeling of independence that came with it. It was also inherently democratic. For eight hours a day, at any rate, working-class and middle-class kids were in the same boat. They all had to learn that life wasn’t always entertaining. They had to wait tables for people who could be less than polite — people who sometimes reminded them of themselves. With many of them in four-year colleges (where close to 75% of their classmates come from homes at the top quarter of the income scale), without a draft and now without menial jobs, privileged kids almost never meet up with their less well-off peers.

The menial summer job, in other words, was an exercise in humbling self-discipline. It should come as no surprise, then, that this is exactly what a lot of managers complain is missing in today’s interns. Business Web sites and magazines are filled with stories of kids who have no clue that their exposed navel rings or iPods are less than suitable officewear, and that overconfidence and complaining are not the best way to ingratiate yourself with a boss. “This is the largest, healthiest, most pampered generation in history,” Mary Crane, a Denver-based consultant, told the New York Times recently. “They were expected to spend their spare time making the varsity team.” But maybe there’s something to be said for serving its members fries and shakes one summer instead.

My 17th summer was spent scraping and painting 400 car ports and digging drainage ditches at Terrace North apartments, followed by years of lifeguarding. These jobs weren’t fancy and they didn’t build the resume, only the bank account, but Ms.Hymowitz is right to wonder what lessons don’t get learned when you skip a few turns at the bottom of the totem pole.

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