Mrs YFG: in praise of old jobs

Whenever I start to complain about my job, I think back to how hard I used to work for a hell of a lot less pay.

Ultimately my current job is glorified customer service. If so, then I’ve been in the customer service industry in its various forms since the age of 14.

Whether it’s waitressing, being a chambermaid, shelling peas or making fan blades in a factory, it’s always interesting to hear how your adult friends spent their summers before you knew them.

My working story

I first started work at 12 years old when I got a paper round. For those of you who don’t know what that is, that’s trudging around with a trolley of newspapers and delivering them around your neighbourhood. All weathers, after school, every week. My sister and I shared the round and we brought home a whopping £3-4 each a week. We also got an allowance of roughly £20 a month.

When I was 14 I upgraded to my next job which was waitressing in a Victorian tea room. At that time I earned £3.75 an hour. I grew up in a tourist town and most of the jobs were linked to the tourist trade and work was seasonal. Most of the time I walked to work. If I was lucky, I got a lift. I worked up doing everything. From operating the massive industrial dishwasher and clearing tables, doing the till, waitressing to sitting on an ice cream stand outside in the blazing summer heat and walking around the town to advertise the shop. It was early mornings, late evenings and physical work. I was on my feet 10 hours a day and rarely got a loo or food break (although I got to enjoy the finest scones).

That’s scone pronounced like “gone”, for you heathens.

By 17 I was effectively running the tea room, had the keys, cashing up and dealing with staff rotas and suppliers. I worked there on and off until the age of 19 and never earned above £5.50 an hour. Today I earn ten times that.

My last student job was working at the local tourist attraction and doing the Christmas parties. I had to dress up in medieval costumes. I burned the photographic evidence. It was awful. I hated it. I pocketed the money and didn’t go back.

After that, I got my vacation scheme (work experience for would-be solicitors). I signed my contract with my Firm at 20 years old and then worked towards graduation. Soon I was sucked into the Londoner corporate world and so far haven’t looked back.

What did I learn?

Apart from barista skills and the ability to identify and name 20 different types of leaf tea, I came out with some life skills I’m grateful for.

It gave me my first understanding of money

My student jobs were invaluable for teaching me about taxes, profits and savings. I saved a third of my pay (in my Bradford and Bingley account when cash rates were 4-5%). I could do what I wished with the rest.

It meant that at a young age I saw payslips and understood how my tax was calculated and what NI was. I also got 4 extra years of NI paid up thanks to those jobs (in the UK you need a certain number of NI years paid to qualify for some government retirement benefits).

I learned about VAT (back then it was 17.5%). When and where it was charged on invoices to the business and the real cost of supplies, bulk discounts and sales credit.

It put me off running my own small business

My five years at the tearoom gave me my first insight into running a business. Tell you what, it’s hard. I had to think about our equipment (leases and fixing), staff wages and payroll, scheduling, making sure we had enough food supplies and stock to serve customers.

Even if I owned the business I had to actually work the shift (as an extra body on hand who isn’t being paid per hour is helpful). You don’t just set the business running and step away! After all that you have to try and market yourself to get an edge in. I had my first go at advertising and making a website. Even for a professional organiser who functions at an inhuman level at work today, I couldn’t do it again. The restaurant industry is not well paid. You have to work bloody hard to make any money out of it. I have enormous respect for small business owners.

It made me appreciate the highs and lows of the gig economy

I never had to commit to work if I didn’t want to. With shift holiday work I could offer the days I wanted and was under no obligation to do any more. I had set hours and got overtime for bank holidays. Often coming in at short notice. Looking back, those jobs I chose were jobs I chose without regard for salary (all paid roughly the same) or desperate need (my necessary expenses were paid as I lived at home). I needed somewhere easy to get to that fitted in with school holidays and weekends. If it were only that simple now.

I can see the appeal of this and, if I was FI, I could totally see myself doing a bit of work in a charity shop or in a bakery or something like that.

But if the work wasn’t there, I didn’t get paid. I had no pension (pre-auto-enrolment), no health insurance and no paid holiday or sick leave. If the shop was quiet I would go home and lose paid hours for that day.

Reflections

It’s easy for me to reminisce and paint a romantic view. Some people don’t work these jobs out of choice, or when they were teenagers. They work them because they have to and don’t have skills (language or otherwise) to do anything else. Or they work them out of choice with the hope of moving up the ranks and don’t really want to be there. It would be disingenuous and insulting to describe these jobs as “student” jobs. I fully acknowledge my privilege that these jobs were a stepping stone that helped me develop as a person and were not my endgame. Anyone who has never worked in a zero hours/gig industry may not fully appreciate the rubbish that people in the service industry have to deal with on a daily basis.

 

What were your teenage/student jobs? What did you learn? Would you go back?

17 thoughts on “Mrs YFG: in praise of old jobs

  1. It is always interesting to hear a person’s take (in hindsight) on their early work experience.

    I think it is a valuable experience for people to work in terrible jobs early on. My father used to describe them as “character building”. It certainly motivates people to invest in themselves, and work/study their way into a more rewarding role.

    At the time you did those jobs, you lacked the skills/knowledge/talent/wisdom required to get something better. In hindsight you now see them for what they were, stepping stones to where you find yourself today. In 20 years time your current role will have been yet another stepping stone along the way.

    It was a great post up to the Relections paragraph. You studied hard at school. You gained admission to university. You passed your degree. You landed each job you have worked. You kept turning up every day.

    Nobody did that for you. On your podcast interview you came across as a smart and accomplished woman. I don’t recall you mentioning that all being served up on a silver platter!

    Don’t let the privilege police make you feel like you need to apologise for your achievements, or sell yourself short.

    It is true we don’t all get dealt a fair hand in life, but everyone has the option of investing in themselves. If they choose to take it.

    1. Hi Indeedably, thanks for your lovely comment! I have no intention of selling myself short but I also don’t want to come across as an arsehole as so many people work those jobs as a career and not just a bit of extra cash. It’s quite nice to find out what people used to do before they were who I know today!

    2. “It is true we don’t all get dealt a fair hand in life, but everyone has the option of investing in themselves. If they choose to take it.”

      True enough, but sometimes it takes a shift in mindset, economics and situation to get you started on the path – and that can be too great a hurdle. I think you do have a certain amount of luck to get the right nudges, opportunities and help in the first place. Some simply never do.

      I grew up under financially poor circumstances with various challenges eg poor health to deal with on top of that. While getting past those to FI has definitely involved persistence and hard work, I’m enormously grateful for the many helping hands, leg ups, and opportunities put in front of me along the way. And I’m keenly aware that it was a fragile balance – had my health been a little poorer or my parents not seen the value of education – the outcome could have been very different.

      My first jobs were gardening ones and conservation volunteering. I can honestly say I’ve never had a bad job – they were all interesting and opportunities for learning.

  2. Zero-hours jobs at the rough end of the work spectrum is most likely what kids will have as their starting experience, unsurprisingly as most wont have connections and with no experience and knowledge of your character, understandably that’s all an employer will risk you in. If you are willing to learn though, the educational value of this is life-changing. While I didn’t like it because it was hard, it taught me the fundamentals of life and not just with respect to work. It’s patently obvious you are a nobody with a start as a waiter or any other role thrown in the deep end dealing with the general public and a shock to the average kid used to the safety and comfort of their own home scenario. Suddenly you’ve the in-your-face spectrum of human behaviour and have to rapidly learn the social skills to deal with a wide variety of situations; a lot of adult die not having learned to handle that properly.

    In a nutshell, the greatest lesson I took from these exploited, disdained roles was that life is fundamentally unfair, it really is the law of the jungle, so the weaker your hand, the more people/the system will kick you. The faster you can accept that this is an inescapable reality and then learn to deal with it as best you personally can, the better your life will be; subconsciously, that’s what set me on the path to FI, not wanting to be vulnerable. Independence was self-defence and freedom the ultimate or only route to safety on this planet.

  3. Running the tea shop would have been an amazing addition to a young person’s CV! You’re so right – bad, early jobs give you an appreciation of what, hopefully, comes later. And also consideration for the people that continue to do those jobs throughout their life. Mine weren’t too bad, compared to some.

    I was a Saturday hairdresser’s assistant. Most useful lesson: learning how to avoid the hairdresser’s predatory bloke. (I was young then, not grey-haired!)

    Worked a Christmas season at M&S in London in the days when it was popular. Most useful lessons: the general public can be quite horrible; wear comfortable shoes when on your feet all day.

    Good and bad experiences add up to a life, and hopefully make us interesting ?

  4. Sunday paper round at 14 – a few hours of early morning, hard work but very well rewarded – especially at Christmas! That then overlapped with a couple of years working in the local grocer/deli. An hour before school and two after + Saturdays. I still don’t understand (a) how I managed to fit in the rugby, football, homework and girlfriend and (b) where did the money go?
    Summer jobs involved a stint on a building site putting up grain silos and farm working. Both physically demanding but pretty well paid. And all, except the paper round, involved NI contributions and Income Tax!
    So, plenty of practice for the real world of work and with hindsight, very valuable…

  5. My weekend jobs consisted of working in the family takeaway business from the age of 9 (I know, child labour but it’s family, innit!?) to 22. Started off just helping out in the kitchen to prepare food, eg wash and chop vegetables, shelling king prawns etc. I progressed to then helping with the cooking and then as I got older, I was ‘promoted’ to serving customers. This weekend job continued while I was at uni (every other weekend). When I graduated and couldn’t find work, the weekend job became my full-time job, until I was able to get the work I wanted.

    When my parents retired, I continued to work weekends for the new owners. I can’t recall how much pocket money I received but with the new owners, I was getting paid £6/hour with a free meal thrown in!

    What did I learn? Ramsey’s got it right – sometimes shouting is needed in the kitchen, you have to be on the ball or things burn and people get hurt and customers are unhappy!

    I learned how to deal with difficult customers, how to add up quickly mentally (we had a really old cash till), developed a great memory (for food orders). It was exhausting work as you were on your feet hours at a time with no break. When I worked full-time, my hours were 4pm to 1am….i know!

    As a child, I learned that you had to work to get paid – in our family, there were no freebies or hand outs – if you didn’t help out or do chores, there was no pocket money.

    One thing I didn’t learn (but should have) was how to cook properly – although my friends think I can, the meals I can cook are few and far between!

    PS – I always thought the ‘scone’ debate was a north / south thing but evidently it isn’t because you pronounce it correctly, unlike some of my friends! ?

  6. One of my first jobs, before university, was working for a call centre for a telephone directory service. Quite possibly the most mind-numbing job ever. Sat all day at a desk with no chance for a reprieve as there was never any break between calls. Even worse the managers could listen to your calls and watch your screen!

    I wouldn’t go back to that job, but I also don’t regret taking it for a few months. It paid enough for me to do what I wanted to do, and helped to motivate me to go to university and get a good degree, so I wouldn’t have to work somewhere similar ever again! So I definitely agree with you that it’s important for people to work when they’re young, to help build an understanding of the value of money, and to ensure that they appreciate the job they end up in in 10 years time.

  7. I grew up in a wealthy family but my dad is self made so there was never any prospect of my being a trust fund kid. I worked from 15 as a bar cleaner cleaning pipes sweeping fag butts restocking clearing the bottle bin . Washing up then working being the bar once I turned 18.

    This gave me self confidence (it was a proper working man’s pub so you gave as good as you got with banter or you were mincemeat) and taught me to communicate with people from all walks of life so definitely helped me in my current sales role Working in a pub was my favourite work I think despite the unsociable hours and unhealthy lifestyle

  8. My first day as a barman:

    “Pint, son.” I draw it, he eyes it.
    “Could you squeeze a nip of whisky in there, son?”
    “I suppose so.”
    “Then squeeze some more beer in, son.”

  9. Early jobs taught me:
    – how hard it is to actually #earn# money. £3/hr back then. (sadly not how much you need in order to live in the real world though!)
    – that some never progress past this, and it seemed pretty tough for them
    – something to look back upon today, when feeling sorry for myself late in the office. It could be worse – I could still be working at that old job and earning that [email protected] wage.
    – how to behave as a working adult, and deal with difficult colleages and customers.
    – if your parent is a “boss”, then you have to work extra hard and be ever vigilant never to look like you are slacking, else you will forevermore be the privileged snot who swans around for pocket money.
    – how to get along with every level of person in a company, top to bottom.

    Most of this can be summed up in two words: CHARACTER and GRATITUDE.

    I worked as a warehouseman, delivery driver, furniture installer, bike shop mechanic, translator. Laboratory assistant. Teacher. Lecturer.
    Now I spend most of my days interviewing and challenging directors and senior managers of large institutions, and still need to corroborate and investigate with junior clerks and admin staff. Those early jobs gave me much to help.

    I am a huge advocate of this for my children.
    The work itself is unimportant.
    The lessons I learnt were invaluable. I hope they learn them too.
    The wider lesson – “you want” means you work, you earn and you can then buy. You do not expect and ask, unless you offer work. (Education is an exception, where I recognise that the children are working hard (ish) investing in themselves, and this should be their priority. Apart from holidays…)

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