The benefits of a Saturday job for over-schooled teens

Away from schoolyard and family I got a sense of self-worth that I hadn't known before

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The Independent Online

My first Saturday job was dispensing cream teas in the rural village near where I grew up. I was 14 years old  – and disgusted by the world. If I thought wearing a frilly apron to transport trays of tea and scones for £1.20 an hour was humiliating, it was nothing to the mortification of having to line up on the side of the road  with fellow staff and wave at the coachloads of tourists as they rumbled into the village. There were dark thoughts behind our rictus grins.

Even so, weekend work and holiday jobs became a feature of my teens. From cream teas, I graduated to handing out prawn cocktails and defrosted steak-and-kidney pies at the local pub. I worked at a riding school where I took novice riders on sedate plods around the countryside. Later came bar work, a stint as a tour guide and shifts at a milk factory, where I wore a hairnet and a paper suit.

Now, it seems, for today’s youngsters the Saturday job is a pipe dream. A report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills shows that the percentage of teenagers combining part-time work with their schooling has plummeted from 42 per cent in 1996 to 18 per cent in 2014. The main reason cited for the drop was that they needed to concentrate on their studies.

While, to the older generation, it may be reassuring to think of youths spending their Saturday afternoons poring over algebra rather than washing dishes in a pub, I’m sad at what they’re missing.

I’m sad that they will never have the thrill of the first pay packet that can be blown in Top Shop rather than put away for rent. I’m sad at an education system that piles on the pressure and conspires to keep kids indoors and at their desks. I’m sad, too, that they won’t have a chance to develop the skills that don’t get taught in schools, such as how to fake a smile (useful), operate a till (invaluable) or purloin a prawn from a diner’s prawn cocktail undetected (a vital life skill).

With these jobs I learnt about the tedium of menial work and the ghastliness of day-trippers, but also the value of physical labour and the camaraderie of casual work. Away from schoolyard politics and the critical gaze of my family, I got a taste of independence, responsibility and a sense of self-worth that I hadn’t known before.

These days I work with university students and it’s easy to spot the seasoned earners. They’re the ones who can haul themselves out of bed in the mornings, who can manage their time and who come over as fully functioning grown-ups. 

We hear a lot about the work-life balance – though where teens are concerned, there’s something to be said for the work-work balance. Exams are important, yes, but so is a bit of graft. Only after they’ve known the torture of an eight-hour dishwashing shift will they truly know about life.