Before 1990 my interest in social issues was sporadic, and my views were run-of-the-mill. But I do remember very clearly, during our time in Boston, reading an article in Newsweek magazine that gave me my first clue that something, somewhere was seriously out of whack. It mostly discussed what they portrayed as a growing problem, namely the number of students who were sleeping through most of the school day because they were exhausted from their night jobs working retail.
Now, I was newly married at the time, and my thoughts on how teenagers should be raised were vague. I did think that it would be good if they held down a part-time job, because (a) I hadn’t, and as a result wasted a lot of time; (b) I thought that high school was a waste of time, mostly a way of keeping cheap labor off the market, and so I figured that time spent working had to be more productive than time spent in school; (c) I thought that working would do more to build a teen’s character than attending school.
Two things about the article stuck with me long after I read it. First, although it presented exhausted, sleeping students as a problem, the article never made it clear why this was a problem, i.e. the fact that these students slept through most of the day didn’t have any observable effect on their studies. Although I thought that high school was a waste of time, I was surprised to see that it was a complete waste of time.
Second, I was shocked at the descriptions of how the teens spent the money they earned at their jobs. Recall that at this time running shoes were popular, and none too cheap; well, one girl proudly posed for a photograph in front of her closet, which contained seventy-five pairs of running shoes. It wasn’t the foolishness of so many shoes that shocked me—it was the fact that she could afford such extreme frivolity while working a low wage job at a McDonalds.
I think I wasn’t cynical enough at that time to understand what was actually going on in this situation. Neil Postman taught me to look more deeply when searching for economic motivations, when he explained the economics of commercial television this way: the advertiser is the buyer, the television network is the seller, and you are the product. Since then, when puzzled about social or economic arrangements I’ve tried to think long and hard about the question, Cui bono? (Who benefits?).
So, who benefits in this case?
The school system, which gets paid for warehousing these teenagers, whether awake or asleep.
Parents, whose teenagers are too busy working and spending to get into serious trouble.
Older laborers, who might otherwise suffer competition from teenagers if they were allowed to work reasonable jobs at reasonable hours.
The economy, which needs a constant stream of new consumers who have been trained to see food and shelter as givens and frivolous luxuries as essentials.
You and me, who would otherwise be paying twice as much for our hamburgers at fast-food emporia staffed by employees who actually expected a living wage.