It was once common to see teenagers mowing lawns, waiting tables, digging ditches, and bagging groceries for modest wages in the long summer months. Summer employment was a social equalizer, allowing both affluent and financially strapped teenagers to gain a foothold on adulthood, learning the virtues of hard work, respect and teamwork in a relatively low-stakes atmosphere.
Do today’s kids make terrible entry-level workers? That’s a question much on employers’ minds as graduation season kicks off and young adults begin their first full-time jobs. We’ve all heard the stories: assistants who won’t “assist,” new workers who can’t set an alarm, employees who can’t grasp institutional hierarchies.
Bosses who toiled in the pre-Self Esteem Era salt mines have little patience for these upstarts. A popular advice columnist had some choice words last week for a young employee who dismissively waved her sandwich at a superior requesting back-up during a critical meeting; the young woman explained that she was on her lunch break and was merely “setting boundaries” with a “disrespectful colleague who sorely needs them.” Moreover, she noted, being “errand girl” wasn’t in her job description.
It’s easy to laugh off these anecdotes, but there are some complex reasons for the lack of familiarity with work norms. For one thing, many twenty-something adults have never held a menial summer job, once considered training wheels for adult life in the American middle class.