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.
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.