Opportunities for young people to learn face-to-face social skills have disappeared. And this I think can result in tragic consequences for our social well-being overall. In conversations with colleagues and friends who will listen and contribute, I frequently like to point to the death of paper routes and other self-employment opportunities for young people that were relatively easy to take advantage of and taught me things that no school could accomplish when I was a boy.
My indoctrination into the world of work and responsibility was in the form of self-employment as a paper boy, window washer, shoe shiner and snow shoveler, starting when I was around 12 years old. These were tasks that brought me money for buying some of the things I wanted, such as candy, a pizza or a ticket to a matinee theater showing in the neighborhood. My parents did not supply me with spending money and they made it very clear that if you wanted such extras, you had to work for them. That fact alone was hugely instrumental in establishing a healthy work ethic in life.
Being a paper boy was particularly educational because it gave me the opportunity to collect weekly subscription fees door-to-door on my route of 88 customers. When do you hear of any kids doing these kinds of jobs today? What kind of responsibilities do most kids have today?
When “collecting” every Friday afternoon, I got to see how people lived, how people maintained their inner sanctums, what they looked and acted like when not having to adhere to some fake, status-quo standards. I was awarded the privilege of seeing people as they truly are.
That’s an invaluable education for a 12-year-old or for any adult for that matter. To this day, almost 50 years later, I can remember almost every customer on my route, some fondly and some not so fondly, such as the attractive, exhibitionist woman who answered the door in ways that were truly exciting for a young and precocious male heterosexual, to the foul-smelling household that had dirty laundry stacked in corners of their kitchen, to the friendly Italian family who always invited me in to have something good to eat at their sumptuous dinner table, to the pseudo tough guy with loud barking Doberman’s who got some sick pleasure in scaring me half to death every week.
As a window washer, I got to see how neighborhood businesses operated on a pay-for-services level, lugging around my bucket, squeegees and towels from one store to the next. As a snow shoveler during the winter months I knocked on peoples’ doors and offered to clear their driveways and sidewalks for whatever they were willing to pay. This showed my early on how some people are extraordinarily cheap while others are extraordinarily generous. The shoe shine gig was one I had to do every Sunday for my father. It taught me how a regular weekly income made a significant difference in my life.
All of these experiences required face-to-face social skills. In the 1950s and 60s I was not distracted by social media and electronic games, and smartphones did not exist. In addition, the fear factor that exists today because of an overabundance of derelicts and evildoers that we see on the national news every day, has extended its sorry claws into the very fabric of child-rearing. We just want to protect our children, limit the possibilities of something bad happening. That’s really all it is, but it has manifested into a huge loss for our children, a huge missing out of social interaction that taught many of us how to be street wise.
In 2001, Daniel Flyn wrote in The American Spectator that 20 years ago 70 percent of all paper routes were managed by paper boys. Today that figure is under 13 percent, with adult contractors now rudely waking us up at 4 a.m. with their tightly wrapped papers pounding on our driveways, sidewalks and front lawns, tossed irresponsibly from cars that are so old or in disrepair that they typically have loud mufflers. I always made it a point to put the paper gently inside the side door of each house on my route, ensuring that the paper was not damaged and ready to be read immediately.
Flyn went on to explain how he was a super paper boy entrepreneur with three routes during the 1980s, along with an ability to pick up a decent pile of extra cash via his willingness to assist a good number of his customers with odd jobs they needed help with. Flyn also talked about some of the life lessons he encountered through the many odd-ball social interactions he had with his customers. Unfortunately, he felt a need to conclude that “paperboys have faded into yesterday because society has decayed.” *
Is that what’s happening? Are we decaying?
* Daniel Flyn. (March 4, 2011). Reagan-Era Paperboy: The best job for a kid is no longer available. The American Spectator. http://spectator.org/articles/37994/reagan-era-paperboy