I earned my first real paycheck at age 14. The year was 1973, and the minimum wage was $1.60 an hour.
The job was at Derryberry's Drug Store, a family business near the public square in my hometown, Columbia, Tenn. I scrubbed toilets, refilled bins with plastic pill vials and filed little bound books of doctors' prescriptions. I also restocked the pharmacy's Coke machine, vacuumed floors and poured acid into plastic milk jugs for resale.
At the time, I was in ninth grade at Whitthorne Junior High School, where I was editor of the school newspaper, The Junior High Jots, and section leader of the school band's drum line. I was a serious student of drum rudiments — paradiddles and ratimacues — and I remember my bulky black snare drum case banging against my right leg as I walked the half-dozen blocks from school to Derryberry's.
I probably worked 10 to 15 hours a week at the pharmacy, spread across nights and weekends. My take-home pay was about $20 a week, give or take a little. By the time I was a senior in high school, I had saved up about $2,000, enough money to buy a brand-new Datsun B-210 coupe with honeycomb-shaped wheel covers. Straight shift. No AC.
Over time, I worked my way up from toilet scrubber at Derryberry's. I learned to operate the cash register, and later, when I turned 16, I was promoted to substitute delivery truck driver. I remember driving around Columbia in a Ford pickup delivering prescriptions and listening to Elton John singing "Philadelphia Freedom" on the radio. On the Saturdays I worked, I would treat myself to a McDonald's Quarter Pounder with cheese and fries.
During college in the late 1970s, I worked several summer jobs. One year I sold books door-to-door, work I was ill-suited to, but that taught me important life lessons. Another year I worked at the Consolidated Aluminum plant stacking aluminum rods, and after that I got a job at a General Electric plant making parts for room air conditioners. The plant work paid about $5 an hour, or $7.50 an hour for overtime, which seemed like a fortune.
I never minded working, and I liked the independence of having my own money. During college, the summer jobs provided a stash of spending money that would last me through the school year.
That was then; this is now.
According to a report in Atlantic magazine, the percentage of teens who work has dropped precipitously in the 40 years since I was a teenager. In 1978, about 60 percent of teens worked summer jobs. Now it's down to about 35 percent and dropping.
There is a temptation to brand today's youth as lazy, but that's simply not true. Experts say today's teens have more rigorous high school studies. The number of kids taking summer classes, for example, is said to have tripled in the last 20 years.
Some kids, like my two sons, play on travel sports teams that easily eat up as much free time as a part-time job. They practice several nights a week and have games on weekends. Tournaments devour a weekend, stretching from Friday night to Sunday evening.
When it comes to jobs, my sons are freelancers. Our 15-year-old has a semi-regular gig as a pet sitter and cuts a couple of lawns on the side. He also has become an entrepreneur, shopping for discount shoes and flipping them for a small profit on eBay.
My 10-year-old son, meanwhile, is a worker bee who can rake leaves for hours at a stretch. He is one of those rare people who actually see physical labor as fun. About once a week he comes to me to ask, "How can I make money?"
I recently spoke to a consultant who studies generations who told me we baby boomers grew up with a lot of unstructured time as children and teens. For kids today, everything is work. Good grades are the passkey to good colleges, so everything at school becomes work-related. Club sports are aimed at producing scholarship athletes. Even volunteering to help a good cause is considered a resume builder.
In the 1970s, we had to learn to work. For today's kids, work is baked into everyday life.
That's a fact worth remembering the next time you find yourself reaching for the "lazy kid" label.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.