When I was 17, I worked at a drugstore. Among other things, I restocked the Coke machine, swept the floors and sold cashews from a hot-nut carousel at Derryberry Drugs in Columbia, Tennessee.
Our 17-year-old son is technically unemployed, in that he doesn't draw a regular paycheck. But that's not the full story. He works harder than I did, only as a self-employed entrepreneur. He tracks down and resells clearance merchandise and used-car parts on Amazon and eBay. In today's parlance, I suppose you'd call it a "side hustle," but it takes a whole lot more brainpower than my old job at the drugstore.
One of the beauties of a free-market economy is that it is always trying to find the equilibrium between supply and demand. If someone is selling an item at a "below market" price, it creates opportunity for a middleman.
In the digital economy, it's possible for anyone with a smartphone to determine the prevailing market value of, say, a pair of Ultraboost sneakers at Marshalls or a sun visor for a 2009 Toyota Venza. You can simply check out recent sales of the item on Amazon or eBay to pinpoint consumer demand and market value.
Depending on your point of view, our son has either become a strategic shopper or a worker bee in a scavenger economy created by Amazon and eBay. On any given Saturday, he will spend several hours at local discount stores looking for underpriced merchandise, whether it's a cookbook or a pair of soccer cleats.
He is also a regular at area junkyards, where he looks for easy-to-extract parts that he knows are in high demand. For example, he tells me that glove-compartment latches on late-model Cadillacs are golden.
He has a little photo studio set up in his bedroom with a bed sheet background to take photos of his finds. Then he markets them on Amazon or eBay. A 50-cent cookbook may fetch $10 online. Meanwhile, a $4 sun visor may bring $40. In any case, the deal involves a willing seller and a willing buyer and a few dollars of profit.
It's really a beautiful thing. And for a kid who thinks he might want to be a business major in college, I can't think of a more informative hobby.
On a per hour basis, he's not making that much money, but enough to cover dinner out with his buddies once a week and a few after-soccer-practice Slushies.
As the auto writer here at the newspaper, I was especially interested in the car-parts trade. I asked him how it worked.
Every morning, he explained, the big junkyard in town publishes a list of new acquisitions — maybe four or five recently wrecked cars. He notes the makes and models and filters them through eBay, which tells him which spare parts are in high demand. Then he makes a "hit list" of high-value parts he wants to look for. Mentally, he also factors in the labor required to actually remove the part from the car.
Then it's off to the junkyard. Sometimes, if a part is of particularly high value, he notices that it disappears instantly. (I see you, BMW rear-view mirror.) The unseen hand of the market has quick reflexes.
I've told him more than once that I'm proud that he is using his mind and his hands to carve out meaningful work. I can't think of any better skills for the 21st-century economy.
Sure beats selling nuts.
Contact Mark Kennedy at email@example.com or 423-757-6645.