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I do an exercise in my persuasive writing classes at Drexel University where the students have to
write about the worst job they ever had. I’ve been doing this exercise for at
least 10 years; it works as a way to show them how much specific details
matter. I get volunteers to read their pieces aloud and then we discuss them. Here’s the problem: More and
more frequently, hands go up when I first give the assignment, and students
say, “What should I do if I never had a job?”
In Time magazine a few weeks ago, Erika
Christakis’s piece “Too Busy for a Summer Job? Why America’s Youth Lacks Basic
Work Skills” cited this statistic: Less than half of the country’s
16- to 24-year-olds had part-time jobs.
My first part-time job was serving at Shriners’ banquets at Pittsburgh’s
Syria Mosque on Saturdays, when I was 15. The Shriners, all of whom were
white-haired and very old to my 15-year-old eyes, would come in lit up
enough from the pre-banquet cocktails that they would not realize how long they
stared at our 15-year-old bodies in tight polyester uniforms, or how limp their
salads had become from sitting out on the tables. Once, I accidentally spilled
a cup of hot coffee down a man’s back, and he didn’t even flinch.
My oldest daughter got a job as soon as she turned 16 and has the same job
five years later, as an activities coordinator at Collingswood Manor, a senior
citizens’ home. She knew she had to get a job, but said she didn’t want to
scoop ice cream; she wanted her time spent at work to have actual value. In
five years, she has bonded with, and lost, so many residents there, but she
does seem to truly enjoy buying them puzzles out of her own money, thinking up
seasonal crafts and activities, etc. She commutes back home from college two
weekends a month to keep that job.
Though I always had part-time jobs, I was not nearly as altruistic as my
daughter: I worked at a bowling alley snack bar, a drugstore luncheonette
(later immortalized in Silence of the Lambs), American Eagle (back
when it still carried outdoor gear), and Kennywood Amusement Park (yes, life
there was pretty much exactly how it was depicted in Adventureland). I quit jobs because I wanted
off for a big party on a Friday night. I took jobs knowing I would be quitting
in a month to go back to school or on a family vacation; I quit working at the
Ponderosa Steakhouse because I hated the fake cowhide uniform. It didn’t
matter; I could always get another job. When I try to tally up my workplaces, I
know I miss a few, but the number is somewhere around 25.
But, times have changed. Christakis (and others) say the competition to get
into prestigious schools pushes students into taking unpaid internships in
their chosen fields over the summer, rather than delivering pizza or working at
bike rentals. And certainly, the recession has caused a seismic shift in that
recent college graduates are forced to take the same jobs that the undergrads
want and need, as the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s “Highly Educated, Deeply in
Debt” series thoroughly covers.
My 18-year-old daughter has babysat her whole “working life,” as well as
painted faces and blown up balloons for special days at Collingswood’s farmers market. Needing money for an on-campus apartment has forced her to look for
more consistent income at the shops and restaurants in our town, but she hasn’t
had any luck. She applied at a coffee shop, and when I bumped into the owner,
an ex-student of mine from Rutgers, he said that he had received 30
applications in one week—a record.
It’s easy to make fun of the students who write that having to get up in the
morning makes their job “the worst.” I’ve had student co-ops who think it’s OK
to come in late—or not at all, because they are too hungover (which they have
no shame admitting to me)—or make hair appointments during work hours.
generational divide is apparent in reactions to the first episode of HBO’s Girls. My daughters and students were
outraged that her parents cut her off financially, with no warning; I was
outraged that 1) they had paid for her living expenses for a full two years
after graduation; and 2) that any company (even a literary magazine!) would
take advantage of a young person by having them work unpaid for that long.
Many young people are between a rock and a hard place: They need to
portray themselves as dedicated to their chosen disciplines for college
acceptance and job applications, and part-time jobs aren’t as easy to procure
as they used to be. Add to this the helicoptering and hand-holding of so many
parents, as well as the entitlement so many parents have instilled in their
kids, and we may have a kind of perfect storm of a generation that may well be
ill-prepared for the realities of the workplace.