I wrote an old-fogy column last Sunday, detailing a crummy warehouse job I had as a teen-ager and contrasting that with my 18-year-old niece's recent pronouncement that she had quit her job at McDonald's because she wasn't "the fast-food type."
I described with dramatic verve my job as a youthful potato-sacker and suggested that the MTV generation won't lower itself to taking such menial jobs.
That prompted a letter of matching verve from a 21-year-old woman named Bettina. She's a lifelong Fullerton resident, a graduate of Troy High School and possessor of a recent degree in general biology from UC San Diego. She hopes to work in the field of pre- and postnatal care for mothers and infants, a plan jolted somewhat when her application to medical school this fall was rejected.
She's the perfect candidate for the kind of person I was chiding last Sunday--namely, someone who thinks a minimum-wage job is beneath her.
Until I read her letter . . .
Referring to the shock of not getting into med school, she wrote: " . . . and now I don't know what to do with my future. I need a little time to make this decision, so to make ends meet I want to waitress. But my parents (good Orange County Republicans), will not let me. Their reasoning is that they did not pay for a four-year institution so that I could become a waitress. I want to work, but the image associated with waitressing is causing my parents to deny me this opportunity. Instead, they want me to move home and live under their supervision until I find a 'good' job. My parents are oppressing my desire to stand on my own. They are letting society dictate their opinions.
"So next time you criticize the youths of today, take into account that perhaps it is not their lack of desire to work but the pressure society (and parents) places on individuals to find a reputable job. If the job environment were as it was when you were a youth, then we would be happy to 'flip burgers.' But nowadays, with each additional credential (high school diploma, BS or BA, master's, etc.), society dictates what kind of job we should have. We want to work but like in my case, 'Waitressing is not a good job. Wait until you find something that has a future.' "
She signed off, "a wanting to work but stifled 21-year-old."
Score one for the younger generation. We adults lament that teens or young adults won't take menial jobs, but we forget to ask where that notion originated. We forget that it is we adults who have fashioned a society that, whether on purpose or not, too often demeans service-industry jobs and extols white-collar work or more glamorous jobs.
I got in touch with Bettina last week and asked how the conversations went with her parents. "They just didn't think it was a very good idea," she said. "They thought I could put my skills to better use somewhere else, that I could use my skills more wisely. I just thought it would be a good summer job, and I could make some money and pay for expenses and be on my own."
The family reached a compromise. Bettina will live on her own in San Diego and work three days a week at a medical center as a non-salaried intern. Her parents will tide her over in exchange for her promise that she won't wait tables.
I asked Bettina why she doesn't simply buck her parents' wishes. "Because I respect my parents," she said. "I just felt they have given me so much that I couldn't really disobey them."
She doesn't think her parents are atypical of lots of others. "I disagree with their ideas that waitressing isn't right for me, because I think it would be fun and would help me get some money together, and I don't see what's wrong with it. I think society thinks it is that way [that there's something wrong with it]. I think people think that, with an education, you shouldn't work minimum-wage jobs, and I don't think that's necessarily true. If you're happy doing what you're doing, then so be it."
Bettina presumes it's a "family pride" issue. "They don't want to see their daughter waitressing. It has such a negative connotation, \o7 waitressing\f7 , and they don't want to tell their friends, 'My daughter is waitressing this summer.' It sounds much better to them to say I'm doing a free internship."
Bettina said she argued her case strongly before relenting. "I've always done what they told me to do, and when it came up that I was thinking of waitressing, they said, 'Absolutely not, you're not going to waitress.' They said no, and there's not much more I can do. [Defying them] is not worth a rift in our relationship."
Nobody asked me, but her parents are dead wrong, if only because waitressing can provide a great education all by itself. I told Bettina that many professional women I know are former waitresses, and they almost uniformly wear the experience as a badge of honor.
Once again, I'm confused. Is it kids who won't work, or parents who won't let them?
I just wish my parents had been as adamant as hers 25 years ago when I told them about the job sacking potatoes.
\o7 Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.\f7