Should everyone have done a 'proper job'?

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.

The life of the shelf-stacker

Mario Cacciottolo

I worked in a supermarket for nearly seven years filling shelves, stocking the warehouse and serving on the checkouts.

My experience wasn't really a pleasant one. In fact I hated it because of how the management treated the shop-floor staff.

Still, that was just my experience and I did see how shelf-stacking can provide a useful path for many people - students, mothers with growing children, ambitious graduates keen to become managers, for example.

On the shop floor, practical skills like "pulling forward" are vital. This is a job that had to be performed without fail over the last hour of each day. We had to pull all the products on all the shelves to the front, labels facing forwards.

My employer ran an excellent scheme, part-funding certain courses. I was able to claim back some of the fees for my A-level evening classes.

Being a shelf-stacker certainly teaches you to deal with those higher up the management chain who look down on you - which, when you're a shelf stacker, is everyone.

Some habits will never die. If I'm in a supermarket now and I see a packet of biscuits on the wrong shelf, I'll put them back where they should be.

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.

Business people walking across pedestrian crossing 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."

Here is a selection of your comments.

The fetishisation of the "proper job" is pretty ridiculous. As if stacking shelves gives you skills that are usable as a politician or office worker. I've worked stacking shelves, I've worked delivering magazines, I've worked in a restaurant and sweeping streets. I've also worked in a lab and in management, and there's really not much transferable between the two besides getting out of bed in the morning which, let's face it, everyone learns when they go to school anyway. Dennis Skinner has a point - which is that our politicians should represent a broad range of backgrounds. But you don't have to have worked down a mine (as he did) to effectively represent the mining community, in my view. Indeed, it would be dreadful if this was the case, since you'd only be able to represent constituents who had lived the same sort of life as you!

Josh, Ashford, UK

Could someone please pass these pearls of wisdom onto schools? My children both went to 'very good' state schools where they were strongly discouraged form taking on any kind of part-time employment. They were supposed to focus on getting those good grades that are so good for the League Tables. Yes, they got the good grades, they each got a decent degree from a good university and they are both unemployed!

Glynis, Bournemouth, Dorset

I am a 26 year old man and have been working since I was 14, I put myself through college and always held down a Saturday or part time job. By doing so I was able to understand the right's and wrong's of the working environment plus giving me some spending money to boot, this meant that I could pay for my own car and driving lessons rather than relying on my parents. But this being said I wasn’t earning a large sum of money and it all took time which was the biggest lesson to learn. It's this attitude of "doing for yourself that has been lost in the past years and the general feeling is the world owes the younger generation a living, even if jobs were more readily available to them I still feel that it wouldn't be long before demands for more money would be made. Too many younger applicants don't hold the respect of a role at the beginning of employment which has be evident throughout my working career, to bring back working ethic we must re instil the mentality of hard graft, not enough people go to work to work.

Matthew Jenkins, Andover

Everyone should have had a job while they were still at school or at Uni. You need to learn that earning money only comes from working. That's why I don't agree with unpaid internships. People need to be appreciated, regardless of age. And if you spend 8 hours doing filing in some hot shot laywers office you should get paid for it. Whatever happened to apprenticeships? Why isn't the government working together with the industry and forcing them to provide places for young people to learn a skilled job? University isn't for everyone and nowadays who can afford it in this country?

Franziska, Sevenoaks

I worked two jobs when I was in school - during the week in a local bakery/cafe and at the weekends in a high-street shop. I would finish school at lunchtime, and go to the bakery in my 'free periods', and come Saturday and Sunday would work in the store. I found the experience hugely beneficial - not only was the free food and clothing discount a great perk, but I gained a valuable work ethic too - something which a lot of people I work with now, in my full-time career, sadly lack. The independence was great, the financial reward was satisfying and I have to be honest - I haven't worked so hard or so often since! Working these 'Saturday' jobs gave me a sense of purpose at such a young age, it was highly encouraged by my parents, and I definitely came away with a greater understanding of the service industry, what it means to work hard, be paid minimum wage, and how to treat others how I wish to be treated. You can't learn that kind of thing from a book - young people need these experiences to make them better human beings, and being handed everything on a plate certainly won't get them there either.

Tracy, Kent

Having returned to studies as a mature student after working a number of years as a trained baker, it shocked me to learn so many of my student colleagues had never worked properly in their life. In general, these were also the first to complain when work started to build up and tended to deal with the stress worse; most of the top performers in my graduating year are all mature students. After spending time in a work environment you do lose that sense of entitlement and are more prepared to get the hands dirty and work hard for the results. Also having that work experience builds a wealth of transferable skills like you say, making employment easier.

Stuart, Manchester

I started a Saturday job for a high street store after my mum started asking everyone she knew if there were any jobs going when I was 17. I stuck through it through university and progressed to management before I went travelling. 9 years down the line and I now work in their Head Office. Working on the front line of customer service gives me an understanding of what the stores go through and gives me great sympathy for those still working there, especially as the recession hit people got more and more demanding and rude, I do think people should do a front line customer service job or shelf-stacking or anything involving the general public, just so they'll be nice to those people in the future!

Kimberley, Watford, Herts

During the summers while doing my A Levels I worked as a Park Ranger. I enjoyed working outdoors, even though it was hard work, but it paid fairly well. However, I wouldn't say it helped me at all in life doing a "proper job", apart from maybe teaching me some responsibility at the time. In hindsight, I would have preferred spending the summer being young and free. Since gaining my degree in Computing I've been employed in a sea of low paid/highly skilled roles and finally, eleven years later, I just about make enough to rent my own flat and pay the bills each month. The only reason I have a good enough job now is that a few years ago I had to kick-start my career by working as a Freelance Web Designer in my spare time, on top of my 9 - 5 job. Young people in this country are given no chance at an affordable life and the problem is getting worse.

Rob Marriott, Newcastle upon Tyne, England

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