David R. Henderson  

Part-Time Jobs and Climbing Trees

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In a comment on my post on Walter Williams's book, "liberty" writes:

It seems to me that sometimes when free market individualists swoon over the benefits of gaining a work ethic, including having many jobs when young and learning from each low paid low-skill job until one can become a wealthy, "success" in later life, it isn't so different from when communists speak of the great benefits of learning about how to be a great collectivist, starting out as a Young Pioneer in childhood, learning about the party values...

...whatever happened to climbing trees and having a real, adventurous, creative childhood?

I'm not arguing for child labor laws or a minimum wage - just musing.


When I was a kid, I had both part-time jobs and adventures. The main adventures were not on the jobs, although there were some. Picking crabapples at Aubin Nurseries in Carman, Manitoba and being paid by the bag was tough work. Although I took a certain amount of pride in my work and didn't put leaves and other things in the bag the way some of the kids did, the main thing I got out of the work was money. I didn't have large goals for what to do with the money: I had small goals. I wanted to buy, say, a balsa-wood airplane or a hamburger at Syl's Drive-Inn or a candy bar or a Coke. (My parents refused to buy us candy bars or soft drinks.) When I had enough money to do some of these things, I stopped.

Every summer we went to our cottage at Minaki, Ontario and my 10 cents a week allowance in the 1950s, up to 25 cents a week in the early 1960s, didn't go far. So, from about the late 1950s (when I was about 8) to the early 1960s (when I was about 12), I would go on to the golf course and hunt for golf balls. I would sell the best ones to golfers, sometimes getting as much as 50 cents per brand new ball, more often getting 35 cents. When the Canadian $ was worth 1.03 in U.S. $ and American golfers would ask me if I took American money, I would say, "Yes, plus 3 cents per dollar." When the American $ was worth $1.03 in Canadian $ and an American golfer would ask me if I took American dollars, I would say, "Yes."

When I got a couple of dollars, I would lay off hunting golf balls and go swimming or canoeing or hiking.

Had I set very ambitious income goals, I don't think I would have been happy. I needed just enough money to buy candy bars and to put 25 cents in the jukebox and play "The Battle of New Orleans" three times. The most expensive thing I saved for was a $30 transistor radio.

The bottom line: I didn't mean to imply in my earlier post that it was all work and no play. I think I figured out an exquisite mix.



COMMENTS (9 to date)
Mark writes:

I don't take Liberty's argument as a push for collectivist and communist ideology, but I do take it as making a false comparison.

Teaching my child discipline, work ethic, responsibility, and providing him or her an understanding that if you want something in life it is not free, you have to work at it, is not the same as brainwashing a child into believing a false ideology that manna from the state is forthcoming if only you sacrifice yourself to the wishes and mandates of the state.

Yes, kids need to have fun and a childhood that lacks it is likely to produce dysfunctional adults. But there is balance, and I believe Walter's point was that we have gone so far the other way that our kids are so indulged that when they become adults they fail to understand what it takes to succeed in today's workforce.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

"Memories are all I have to cling to..."

liberty writes:

OK. I wonder then if one lesson that you learned is that perhaps we tend to be happier when we work only just enough to get the things we need (saving up occasionally for things we really want)? Or is that only for childhood?

The reason I ask is that I do think that the "capitalist" culture (as compared with "communist" culture) does instill a work ethic and what some call "productivism" (in addition to "materialism" or "consumerism"), which is a work fetish. (Note that productivism has also existed in communist countries at various times! I am merely focused on the capitalist one right now - I am not comparing two ethics).

What this means is that many people feel they need to work hard and climb a ladder and (usually) try to earn a lot, whether they actually desire a lot of money or not. There is always something to spend money on - or save it for. Even when materialism and consumerism are shunned, the most pious capitalists still believe in long work days and savings: the man who works 15 hour days (never seeing his family) and saves his whole life, just so that he leave money to his children, is seen as a great role model. But (the great irony) when those children inherit the money they are not seen as privileged by it, because it makes it harder to learn his work ethic. They too should learn to work 15 hour days, stuffing the money away in a bank for their children, who are strangers, and who should probably not touch the money either.

rpl writes:
I wonder then if one lesson that you learned is that perhaps we tend to be happier when we work only just enough to get the things we need (saving up occasionally for things we really want)?
The most important lesson on this subject that you can learn is that such choices are deeply personal, and not everybody will make them the same way you do.
What this means is that many people feel they need to work hard and climb a ladder and (usually) try to earn a lot, whether they actually desire a lot of money or not.
People work hard and climb a ladder for a lot of reasons. The hardest working people I know, the ones who arguably have a problem with work-life balance, do it because they enjoy the status and prestige associated with having climbed the ladder. I'm sure they enjoy the money, but it's not their primary consideration.

Seriously, liberty, stop judging. People sometimes make bad choices that end up making them unhappy, but it doesn't happen as often as you seem to think. More often, they just have different values than you do. Tend your garden, and let other people worry about how best to tend theirs.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I've never understood why child informal labor is fondly remembered and celebrated, while formal labor is one of the evils of our age. Lemonade stands, newspaper routes, helping out at the family store are (rightly) celebrated, but once you're a formal employee this is evil?

I presume it's union propaganda, but many seem to have internalized the distinction between fond informal labor and evil formal.

liberty writes:

rpl -
Honestly, i am not judging. I am merely trying to sort out what is built into the market system, in terms of ethics, and how this affects our own worldview - the same musing that I began on the first thread.

I have no problem with people making choices to work, not work, be rich, poor, make mistakes (as we all do), or anything else.

Mark writes:

I don't believe that liberty is judging. I think he makes a valid point, just one that I don't think is necessarily a problem of capitalism.

I would take his argument that people become too obsessed with the acquisition of material wealth and argue that it's more a problem of corporatism. There is nothing inherent in capitalism that promotes status seeking or crude materialism. Corporatism, on the other hand, with its hierarchy and arguably inconsistent (or unfair, think of the rank tournament theory) income distribution, creates the drive for power and status seeking within the firm and within peer groups. It's the pursuit of material wealth for the sake of power and status seeking.

liberty writes:

Mark,

Thank you, I appreciate your comments. I wonder if it is just due to corporatism though, as I think it has roots in the "Protestant work ethic" which was developed during less corporatist times (though they may have been mercantilist times, which perhaps is still not free market and therefore due to non-market causes).

I think this ethic may have made more sense at that time. I wonder whether American culture has simply not yet caught up with its stage of development. This is what is argued by "Post-productivist" theory. See for example the Critical Review volume on the Joyless Economy (vol 10. No 4) and also the Basic Income Studies paper found here: http://ideas.repec.org/a/bpj/bistud/v4y2010i2n7.html

and these papers on post-productivist welfare regimes:
http://www2.econ.uu.nl/users/L.Groot/BJoPS.pdf

http://www.vedegylet.hu/okopolitika/Goodin%20-%20Postproductivist%20Welfare.pdf

liberty writes:

My earlier comment seems to have been flagged as spam, and hasn't resurfaced. Mark: thank you for your comment.

I am not sure that it is due to corporatism, as I believe it might stem from the "Protestant work ethic" which has roots back before corporatism - although at that time the economy was mercantilist perhaps, which is still not a free market.

However, I wonder whether the American culture simply has not caught up to the American economy -- maybe we no longer need the protestant work ethic and the production levels, the growth, that we used to, if only we came to see that we don't need so much stuff and new stuff all the time, then we could enjoy leisure more and we could all work less (consume less and save less).

But this would also require a safety net of some sort - and this is the theory and aim of the post-productivists. See, for example, the Critical Review issue on the Joyless Economy (Vol 10, No. 4) and papers using the term post-productivist (e.g., in Basic Income Studies, and by Goodin or Van Der Veen or Fitzpatrick). I won't add links as that is what flagged by last attempt to comment.

[Hi, liberty. It wasn't the links. It was the sum of a few terms--one of which did coincidentally occur in a link. At any rate, sorry about the delay. I'm out of town and couldn't check the backlog often today.--EconLog Ed.]

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