Should everyone have done a 'proper job'?

  • 11 July 2012
  • From the section Magazine
From top left clockwise, woman stacking shelves, shop assistant, man sweeping in hairdresser, factory worker, man pulling pint

The focus on internships is growing in popularity, while fewer young people do Saturday jobs. But should everyone be expected to have done a "proper job" while they're young?

It's a rite of passage that may involve cleaning toilets, sexing chickens or operating the machine that puts jam into a doughnut.

Holding down a part-time job as a teenager or student may not be glamorous. But it is a chance to dip one's toe into the world of work and take a crucial first step into adulthood.

But the number of young people doing a Saturday job has halved in 15 years, according to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

The economic downturn has made it tougher for young people to find any job. For those seeking a career there is now greater pressure to target a certain profession and gain work experience.

Those who go on to successful careers often cite those days of waiting tables or picking fruit as formative experiences. Sean Connery began working as a milkman when he was 14 , earning 21 shillings a week.

Sir Terry Leahy ended up running Tesco after taking a holiday job stacking tea and coffee, George Clooney once tried his hand at selling women's shoes, while the comedian Sean Lock worked on building sites.

It's hard to define what a "proper job" is. White collar work is aspirational and professionals in finance, advertising, journalism and the law often work extremely long hours. But there is a nagging sense that sitting at a desk all one's life is not always "real" work in the same way as some other jobs are.

A person who has never toiled at grimy, physical or monotonous labour has somehow missed out. It goes beyond career development, to the idea of shaping a more rounded person.

The three main party political leaders have at times been accused of failing the proper job test. They are perceived to be career politicians who have done nothing outside media or politics.

David Cameron worked as a political researcher, for a multi-national in Hong Kong, and for media firm Carlton Communications. Nick Clegg has worked as a skiing instructor, for a Finnish bank, as an intern for the journalist Christopher Hitchens, and as a trainee for a Brussels NGO. Ed Miliband reviewed plays for LBC radio, worked as an intern for Tony Benn and as a special adviser to Gordon Brown.

For MP Dennis Skinner, who worked as a miner for 21 years, parliament has become far too homogeneous. "It's a very narrow band in parliament. A lot more people used to come from different areas of work when I was first an MP." He believes his time working in the pits gave him "hinterland".

Tom Hodgkinson, editor of the Idler magazine, says that varied, part-time jobs make for a happier society. "We should all be far more generalist and capable. Everyone should do Saturday jobs because they increase humility and counteract a major problem - an excess pride among young people."

But is that a nostalgic thesis in an increasingly specialist world? Dr Paul Sissons, senior researcher at the Work Foundation, argues that the best determinant of career success is getting good grades. "Formal qualifications are still the essential determinant of labour market outcomes."

The other thing sought by employers is work experience. "For particular work areas where you specialise, clearly the most important thing is gathering the relevant skills," Sissons says.

The message seems to be study hard and get a good internship.

The rise of the ambitious intern has coincided with the demise of the temp. Alan Milburn, the government's social mobility tsar has warned that unpaid internships are often only affordable to those from wealthy families .

Tyler Brule, editor in chief of Monocle, says that students on summer holidays need to take real jobs rather than getting their parents to pester friends for internships.

He has noticed a decline in the number of applicants listing part-time jobs on their CVs. For Brule, who stacked shelves and cleaned yachts as a young man, this exacerbates a problem with the younger generation. "They're not recognising a hierarchy. Or understanding that no means no, that the discussion is over and that it's time to get back to work."

A job is a privilege and not a right, he argues. You can't start off as a production editor straight away, for example, he suggests. You have to do your time, starting at the bottom. And everyone needs to have experienced what it's like to stock shelves, scoop ice cream, wait tables or scrub floors.

Image caption Many people doing white-collar jobs have done nothing unrelated to their career

These experiences often build camaraderie between people who, on the face of it, have little in common. Earning your own money is a step towards financial independence. There are valuable lessons about deadlines, punctuality, and not snitching on colleagues. It may feature ranting bosses or a disdainful public.

Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, says Saturday jobs are good for children at school on three provisos - they should be properly remunerated, have a modest time commitment and be regular.

Sometimes - as with his summer job as a filing clerk for York City Council - it's about dealing with boredom. At others, it's about coping with annoying colleagues. These experiences forge something precious in later life - resilience.

"There's a huge amount of evidence that we develop resilience when things are not going our way." That's not to justify any job for life, but if one goes on to better things, these experiences help to develop character.

Julian Baggini, co-author of The Shrink and the Sage, agrees some jobs can be good for people. Someone who has worked as a waiter is more likely to be a respectful customer, he says.

Working six hour shifts with a ten-minute break in a fast food restaurant during the 1980s taught Baggini about exploitation.

"But I'd be wary of saying that everyone who does this kind of work is destined to move on to other things." The sad reality is that some people will be doing these jobs all their lives, he suggests.

And sometimes people "slum it" for a few weeks and dine out on the experience for the rest of their lives.

"They may dabble in menial work and then wear it as a badge of pride. 'I know what it's like - I spent a summer fruit picking'. It's almost worse than someone who's never done a part-time job in their life."

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