Treating Teens Contemptuously: The Retail Squeeze
Type "teen jobs" in the findinfo.com search engine, and a good portion of what it turns up will have something to do with teens and blow jobs.
The few actual links to job listings talk in glorified terms about "career planning" or lighthearted slang about "finding a gig," but they can't mask what their listings reveal: that we expect teens to take meaningless jobs at the bottom of the wage scale.
Those who aren't performing blow jobs for a fee are performing some other rote behavior such as repeating "Welcome to Loews Cinema" or flipping burgers or - endlessly, and for very low pay. According to Department of Labor statistics, over three-quarters of jobs for youth are in retail.
About two-thirds of U.S. fast food workers are under the age of 20. Are teens at least coming away from their evening shifts at Taco Bell with job skills? Not unless you count obedience, which sociologist Ester Reiter says, after 10 months of working at Burger King, is the most valued trait amongst fast food workers (see her book, Making Fast Food: From the Frying Pan into the Fryer). Beyond following the rote demands of assembly-line type production, teens aren't expected to know much. In fact, despite accepting hundreds of millions of dollars in federal subsidies for training workers, fast food chains put tremendous resources into research and technology to reduce employee training.
One of the most important shared goals of fast-food restaurants is the redesign of kitchen equipment in order to reduce the cost of worker-training. "Make the equipment intuitive, make it so that the job is easier to do right than to do wrong," advises Jerry Sus, the leading equipment systems engineer at McDonald's. "The easier it is for [the worker] to use, the easier it is for us not to have to train him" (The Guardian, April 7, 2001).
Teens are exploited from both directions in the retail world - as cheap labor and as a demographic to be analyzed, probed, and minutely nurtured as consumers. When they're not working the cash register as an employee, we seem to expect them to be working it from the other end - purchasing a steady flow of brand name goods that keep marketers drooling over the current teen baby boom.
Several feature articles about teens in the Boston Globe and New York Times over the last few months underscore how seriously we view teens - at least when it comes to their all-important role as consumers.
The 4/25/01 Boston Globe article "Teens Take Charge" profiles the rising teen use of credit cards, reminding us that human agency and purchasing power are one and the same. The feature-length story on the front page of the Living/Arts section explores in great detail the credit cards availabe to teens, parents' tips and tricks for overseeing their children's use of plastic, and a helpful grid comparing the relative merits of various teen-oriented cards.
Another front-page Living/Arts piece (5/15/01) explores the work of a "cool-hunter" - a relatively new profession that involves hanging out in bars, street-corners, and recreation centers in an effort to track down what 's "hot and appealing to people under 25." Making inroads into teen communities through teachers, community center directors and coaches, cool-hunters are able to set up meetings in high school cafeterias and sports clubs. These adult coordinators and teen participants are paid $25-100 in cash, gift certificates, or product samples.
"We understand what teens aspire to," boasts Teen Research Unlimited (TRU) whose study results are sprinkled throughout mainstream articles about teens. Their web site confirms that, in fact what they "understand" is teen brand preferences. Their client list includes almost 200 entitites - most of them large corporations. Under "Social Marketing," there are perhaps 20 clients - most of them state-based anti-smoking campaigns. Of all of those taking advantage of TRU's in-depth knowledge of teens, there is only one school - West Point Academy.
A 4/8/01 article in the New York Times identifies that Generation Y (the "demographic behemoth born roughly between 1982 and 2002") as being less likely than adults to be white, and more than twice as likely to identify themselves as being of more than one race. What's interesting about this new hybrid, melting-pot generation? You guessed it - its impact on marketing. "It's cool and hip to be ethnic," says the director of one market research firm. This is the "best brand-building culture in America today," says another.
Somehow, when young adulthood should be an ample universe of growth and discovery - one that gives kids the chance to learn, contribute, experiment, envision, and carve out a meaningful role in the world - it is instead shrunk into the pinpoint activity of buying and selling. We treat kids contemptuously by herding them into de-skilled, meaningless, low-wage jobs and by taking them seriously only insofar as they might divulge to marketers how they plan on spending their on-average $84 per week (another TRU statistic).
Imagine a Living/Arts section of the newspaper that moved beyond consumer habits, and actually explored with teens what they thought about well, just for starters, living and arts. Imagine the advertising-driven teen magazines and web sites better reflected the teen voices that occasionally break through the nearly seamless promotion of brand names and consumer habits.
We might start getting a sense of how insightful and nuanced teens can be as cultural and political critics. And that might be a little frightening for a society that currently so contemptuously sees their worth only in terms of how little their labor sells for and how much they run up their credit cards. If we paid attention to teens, we might start hearing from people like "devi8ed," who posted the following on www.bolt.com (July 22, 2001 in response to the question: Is there such a thing as American culture?)
yes. but you see unlike real historical culture and tradition America is known for being the largest and most active creator of 'corporate culture.' mix in the east and the west throw in a bit of information scanned thru the coolhunters and give it a bouncin' electronica jingle a snappy advertisement campaign and a phat logo and voila you've got your latest rehash of capitalism's cheap attempt to re-direct personal vision into cold hard cash... thats what Nike | the Gap | Starbucks | Adidas | Disney et al. have been doing all along. now you see the point people make at antiglobalisation street raves? these very same corporations rape foreign land and steal the lives of thousands of Third World workers ( all of them young like you or me. the age range is 9-19 ) thru their miserable slave labor outsourcing practices but when they switch to the marketing status in the west it becomes happy-crappy so it can sell off and hide the dirt of reality... THIS is american culture. McBusiness...