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What My Son’s First Job Taught Him About Self-Esteem

The lessons of minimum-wage toiling aren’t just about the value of hard work

man pushing a larger coin up a rock
Paul Spella

This summer my son got his first job, a bittersweet taste of what it means to shackle yourself to the clock in exchange for some money to burn.

I, of course, secretly relished that my somewhat coddled boy finally had to do some coddling at an elegant and popular outdoor restaurant. Who among us Gen Xers does not have hours of hard manual labor baked into their soul?

My son’s first job also gave us an opportunity for some X-Z generational story swapping. When he told me how a customer promised to post a negative review after being denied a table during peak hours, I shared how the chef in one eatery where I worked admonished a difficult customer by writing “f*ck you” in basil atop her thin crust pizza. (The customer didn’t even notice.)

When my son related how the happy hour crowd often tried to push past his hosting station without a reservation, insisting they “just wanted a quick beer,” I told him how the headmaster of my high school pretended he didn’t know me when I bused the table he was sharing with the tennis star Ivan Lendl. 

And when he lamented the goddamned rudeness one encounters every single fricking day in the service industry, I recalled how the 60 Minutes curmudgeon Andy Rooney cursed me out because the store where I worked was out of rump roast. “And you call this a butcher shop,” Rooney said before storming off in a huff.

Yet, as the summer draws to a close, I find myself questioning my first blush of enthusiasm for my son’s low-wage drudgery. When I think back to the windows I washed, the mansions I painted, the hot plates I slugged off the hob and out into the dining room melee, I’m reminded of what Hemingway said about newspaper writing. When asked whether journalism helped him as a novelist, Papa said, “to a point.” In other words, working is good because it gets you working. But bad, routine work, overdone, has diminishing returns.

My own scut-work phase lasted far too long. From high school through college and then into the first years of the recession-tinted ‘90s, I served others one too many times — so much so that even today, I feel inner deference to people of lesser character that I know I shouldn’t feel. 

In this economic environment, that kind of diminishment can ding you. We Gen Xers have unfortunately deeded our children a one-percenter  versus 99-percenter world, one in which a smaller and smaller coterie of alphas try to convince the rest of us that we were born to be betas. But as The Big Lebowski’s Dude, that ultimate spurner of meaningless labor, put it, “This aggression will not stand, man.” 

I love my son. I love his independence of spirit, his wry side smile that tags a jerk as a jerk without a single word having to be uttered. 

Going forward, I’d like to invest more in that indomitable quality rather than in his ongoing obedience to The Man. Our children were born to learn, not to serve. And once they’ve learned about serving, it’s time to move on. 

Self-worth is a priceless commodity, one that, properly purposed, will bring its own return on investment.