This is not worship of employment, but a simpler observation: It seems that the more you ask of people, and the more you have them do, the more they are able to later do on their own. It is important to note that while we shouldn’t allow children to be bobbin boys, no one would describe Steve Job’s summer job at 13 as his exploitation. We should be thinking much harder about making sure children can make meaningful contributions to the world.
Seizing opportunity requires opportunity to exist at all. And I suspect the downplaying of agency in childhood not only creates fewer opportunities for great people, it must also create more marginal people. Ushering everyone into an endless default script is disastrous when underlying conditions or assumptions change. Even when they don’t, some people exit academia almost terrified to leave (to interact with the “real world”), a kind of Stockholm syndrome. How could we celebrate a higher learning that creates something so pathetic, the opposite of a readiness for life?
A couple who work for us brought their eleven-year-old niece along during her spring break this past April. It was her idea, something she was excited to do, and she seemed to really enjoy it. We gave her simple tasks like opening incoming parcels, but whenever she finished, she would repeatedly ask if there was anything else that she could do. At the end of each day, on her own initiative, she’d sweep the floor with the big push broom. By the end of the week, she was proud to have become competent, if not quite a master, at operating the pallet jack, although she was a little too small to maneuver it with a full load on it. It was interesting to see how eager she was to be given responsibilities. She saw it as getting to participate in something with her aunt and uncle, which just happened to be “work.” I have to admit, I don’t think I would have been nearly as motivated at that age; I would have preferred to wander off by myself to play or daydream. The Lady of the House often talks of wishing she had an army of teenage girls to carry out tasks for her. I remind her that when confessing to being the reincarnation of a robber baron, it’s best to use one’s inside voice.
I started work on my fifteenth birthday in my father’s newspaper distributorship. He had been talking about it for several weeks prior, telling me to be ready to wake up early one of these Sunday mornings and go in to the warehouse. A few weeks went by without anything coming of it. I went to bed the night before my birthday thinking, “Well, surely he won’t pick tomorrow to follow through on that…” Naturally, I found myself in a cold concrete room with hazy fluorescent lighting at three a.m. helping to assemble the Sunday edition of the New York Times. Back then, the Sunday paper came in about four or five different sections — the main, or front page section (“heads”), sports, and a couple others whose names escape me now. One person would insert these sections together and pass them down to a partner, who added the “combos,” the ads and such which gave the Sunday paper its heft, and passed them on to be tied in bundles of ten. I played the combo guy to Jesse’s inserter. That man was a machine. Frederick Winslow Taylor would have whimpered ecstatically in his sleep to dream of such a man on his assembly line. He assembled four sections together faster than I could add one. It was quite the unwelcome lesson in humility, especially with my dad barking at me to pick up the pace.
Nowadays, I’m grateful to my dad for instilling a strong work ethic in me. I still have no desire to manage a warehouse crew composed of teenage girls, though. They’ll have to find some other way to the joys of self-fulfillment through hard work.