Consuming Work: Youth Labor in America

Teen barista

Source: Wikimedia Commons

On a bitterly cold day, Josh, like many other teenagers, traveled many miles to get to the coffee shop, where he works part-time. Despite experiencing car troubles, nearly having a car accident, and spending hours in heavy traffic, he arrived at the coffee shop only to do a double shift, carry heavy loads of garbage in the cold, and deal with a hectic day of selling hot beverages to demanding customers.

Even though his school was in session, he chose to come to work instead of going to class at the local college, where he is getting his degree in theater and humanities. When I asked him why he chose his work over his studies, he told me they need him here: “Nobody notices when I am not [in class].” Unlike at school, they notice him at work. He feels needed—like a hot cup of cocoa on a cold day.

Josh, like many other teenagers, works “part-time” while still in school, but do not be fooled by what he calls part-time work. “Part-time” sounds like a few hours of work scattered throughout the week, but he was at the coffee shop every day of the past week. Even on the days when he was not scheduled to work, he stopped by to hang out with his friends. He did not just stand idly by; he also helped the friends who were working.

He is one of many young people who fold sweaters in clothing stores, pour our morning coffees, wait on us in restaurants, and serve us in many service and retail sector jobs. Yet Josh differs greatly from our traditional conceptions of young workers. For most of us, the terms “child labor” or “youth labor” evoke images of unventilated sweatshops in the developing world or the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels. Yet contrary to popular belief, not only is youth labor widespread in the United States; it is an important element of our modern economy.

With his spiky blond hair, fashionable clothes, and brand-new cell phone, Josh looks nothing like the chimney sweeps of Dickens novels, nor does he fit the conventional definition of a service or retail worker in our contemporary economy. Typical service and retail sector jobs in which young people are employed are bad jobs: routine jobs with low wages, part-time hours, few or no benefits, no autonomy, and limited opportunities for advancement. Normally, we would assume the teenagers who take these bad jobs are the poor ones, who desperately need these jobs for survival- to put themselves through school or perhaps help their families. What is really surprising is, only in America , while there are many young workers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, youth from higher socio-economic status backgrounds are more likely to work. According to the Department of Labor’s Report on the Youth Labor Force, more affluent youth are more likely to work, not less. Why would affluent teenagers willingly give up their free time from school and activities to work in bad jobs with low pay and no benefits?

My recently published book on Youth Labor in America sheds light on this question. I found that affluent teenagers say they work to meet new people in the suburbs and hang out with their friends without the supervision of adults. It’s hard to fault suburban students, who complain about the anti-teenage policies of many businesses that ban or restrict teenagers congregating. Today, many shopping malls ban teenagers from hanging out and require parental escort, which is almost as bad. Without malls and common spaces to turn to, work starts fulfilling a social function. Work provides a common space away from parental supervision and adult scrutiny.

Many also work because they want to be associated with cooler brands. To many adults, these part-time jobs seem identical. Typically part-time jobs students take seem to service sector jobs with low pay, no benefits and limited hours. However, for the young people themselves, the brands matter most. Even if the pay is better and the working conditions are nicer, many teens don’t want to work for mom and pop places, they want to work for cooler brands- especially ones where they are avid consumers of. “If I shop there, I’ll work there” is a motto for many young people. Working becomes a way to be associated with a cool brand. Not only is work a way to be associated with a cool brand, brands become a way to express individual identity. Just by knowing where someone works, many young people attribute social and political views to individuals. When I ask about the large coffee chain and the workers there, young people say:

“They are tree-hugging hippies. They enjoy playing their acoustic guitar or staring in amazement others playing the acoustic guitar”

“(They)….. are classy hippies who listen to the Grateful Dead and memorize the script to Rent and Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“Liberal, artsy, upper to middle class, earring, tattoos, drives a green car, hates the war, and loves trees.”

Since many affluent young people want to work to socialize with friends and associate with a cool brand, many companies actively seek out these young and affluent workers. These young, attractive workers, who are already devoted fans of their products “look good and sound right,” borrowing from Williams and Connell. They become ideal faces of the products they are selling. Besides, they do not care about the low wages, limited hours and the odd schedule.

This has serious consequences for the labor force. As affluent young people want to work for social reasons or for the brand prestige, the ones who really need these part-time jobs are often shut out of the system. As “looking good and sounding right” become important components of service sector jobs, many young people from the inner cities have trouble finding jobs. These service sector jobs that used to be easily available have become more competitive and selective having extensive aesthetic labor requirements. Such requirements result in discrimination in hiring based on race and socio-economic status. The ones who don’t have the right look are told to buy the right clothes and accessories to get the jobs. Not having a job or being stuck in bad jobs become their fault- not of structural inequality. When I asked young people why some young people are stuck in bad jobs, one said it was because they have “untucked shirts, baggy pants and crooked hats.” Another said it was because they were “pimply” and “overweight.” They simply don’t have the right look.

Many young people enter into a vicious cycle of consumption as a result. Jules, a 21 year-old social science major, says that working at a high-end clothing store during her high school years was one of the worst decisions. With the look requirements and the culture of consumption encouraged by discounts, she accumulated a substantial debt that can rival her student loans.

In sum, with more affluent teens taking these part-time jobs for social reasons, the pressure is on less affluent teens, who either don’t get the jobs because they don’t have the right look or get them and go into debt trying to keep these jobs. With such look requirements, less affluent teens are not the only ones who are disadvantaged. These part-time teenagers work side by side with full-time adult workers, who need these jobs to support themselves. The social function of these jobs for teens obscures the everyday struggles of full-time adult workers – who are often stuck in such low-wage service sector jobs – and reinforces the aesthetic labor requirements.

Yasemin Besen-Cassino, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Montclair State University and the Book Review Editor of Gender&Society. She is the author of Consuming Work: Youth Labor in America (Temple University Press, 2014).

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