A SON. A FIRST JOB. THE PARENTS PITCH IN. ELLY VARRENTI EXPLAINS.
MY 13-YEAR-OLD son has just got his first job. While I applaud his initiative, I suspect that accompanying him three days per week after school to haul bags of catalogues up and down the streets of our town in the half-dark does not actually count as a ‘real’ job with any ‘proper’ responsibility attached.
Delivering junk mail under the cloak of sundown is not my idea of a good career move either. Already, a few mates have spotted me surreptitiously stuffing the luridly coloured items into the too- small slots. And while we have a good laugh at my expense, I hurriedly inform them that my son is doing the other side of the street and that it’s really his job, not mine.
“See? There he is, over there in the parker and beanie dragging that trailer- buggy contraption his father made him for the job. Look! It’s even got lights front and back.”
Is it even legal to employ a 13-year- old in this country? Yes it is, as long as he has his parents’ approval and the employer has procured some special permit. But nothing in the contract I saw mentions my son. Instead, it reads as if his own father is the employee.
Is this exploitation, or is it fine that our son does half the work and his father and I do the other half? Because there is no way he can sort, collate, lug and deliver 300 fat-arsed catalogues on his own within the three-to-four hour time frame the employer reckons is possible.
This week I am delivering junk mail. Last week, I sang in our local pub for beer money and danced with a man wearing an eye-patch and a cowboy hat. This is life as an over-educated, under- employed, middle-aged woman living in a large regional town 90 minutes out of a major city. Then again, I’ve had more jobs and more career changes than Walter Mitty, except that mine were real, so I guess I can weather this latest one.
As I scale our town’s hilly streets, using my mobile-phone torch to check for any No Junk Mail signs, I think about how to use the experience as material for a story, because otherwise I would just feel pissed off. Those hilly streets are often unmade roads. You try clambering up one of them with two canvas shopping bags full of freshly folded landfill.
My own first job was at 16, waitressing in a pizza bar during Year 11 (or Form 5, as it was called in the late 1970s). I used to get felt up by the blokes making the pizzas. Other blokes, customers, would patmeonthebumasIheadedtothe kitchen or slip crumpled notes into the front pocket of my little white apron. One of the notes said, Hi beautiful! Give me a call ’cause I wanna make you happy. He must have been at least 40.
I left that job for two reasons. First, I needed to study for exams. Second, one of the pizzamakers drove me home after work and put his hand down my shirt and called me a pretty little tease when I pushed it away.
After exhaustive anecdotal research I have concluded that women around my age were usually sexually harassed at their first jobs in the 1970s and that most men, in their first jobs, were usually sacked for accidentally setting fire to the fish’n’chip oil or for telling an employer to go jump. Younger women
I spoke to have similarly funny or exploitative stories to tell about their first jobs, but there is less mention of any sexual harassment.
Back in the day, kids did lots of tough jobs and started younger than they do today. Is this because we are just more careful with, and respectful of, kids now? Or is my tramping about with my son and his hundreds of catalogues after school just helicopter parenting in full flight?
My son’s father and I have not lived together for over 10 years, but this latest development in our son’s life has had us kind of hanging out together
in an almost-companionable way. My ex-husband sorts, I fold, our son packs. Just like a traditional little nuclear family – Mum and Dad helping their only son navigate his first job.
Our son looks baffled. Either because it’s one of the rare moments he has seen his biological parents in the same room cooperating like a Sesame Street sketch or, maybe, because he can’t believe his first job is so boring.
“As soon as I save enough money for a new computer I’m quitting. Okay? Mum? Dad?… Okay?”
» Elly Varrenti is a columnist for the Australian Education Union and is teaching writing at the University of Melbourne.