Will's First Job
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Everybody thinks their job is special, you know? Their boss, for instance, is unlike any other in his or her irrationality, charm, or lack of it. Their duties are unique in their foolishness, importance, or neither. Their co-workers are unsurpassed in their strangeness, nobility, or not.

Nope. There is, it turns out, but one job in the world, and we are all working it.

My son enjoyed his first experience in gainful employment this summer. I have watched this with interest, because like many teenagers, Will has a careful attitude toward the whole issue of work. That is, he eschews it. Not that he doesn't labor very hard. His job is school and he does it well, putting his nose to the grindstone when necessary and making us proud. I emphasize, however, the words "when necessary." And when it comes to physical toil, he prefers to remain a consultant.

So, anyhow, this summer it was deemed advisable, if he wished to have pocket money, for him to augment his mooching income with a genuine paycheck from an actual job. He went into retail and started, as we all must, at the bottom, as a clerk in a place that sells CDs, books, videogames, posters, and other entertainment. He makes too little money but just enough to keep him going back every time management is kind enough to give him a seven-hour shift. Sound familiar?

He has to wear a costume that looks somewhat strange on him, simply because I've never seen him in one. Prior to this, he was relentlessly informal. Now he is required to sport a colorful shirt with the logo of the establishment emblazoned on it, much as I was expected to wear something in pinstripe throughout the 1980s, often with a fat tie of either yellow or red, with tiny specks. He looks good in his mandatory outfit as, I believe, did I.

He is exploited, forced to do a lot of stuff that is alien to his nature and frankly pretty obnoxious. There are the stupid little tasks, like moving inventory from one bin to another. Most egregiously, management seems to view the young man as infinitely willing to work the worst and most demanding shifts, which often end with odious chores--like mopping the floor at 11 P.M.

It wasn't until he decided enough was enough, and stood up to his manager, that he was granted better shifts, or at least fewer bad ones. One time, at nearly midnight, the boss told him to remop the floor. Will went into the office where this senior officer was sitting in his comfy chair and said, "I'm not mopping the floor again. If you wanted me to do a better job, you could have said so while I was doing it."

"I don't think it's right for you to take that tone of voice with me," said his boss, shifting the discussion to the core subject with any boss: power and its prerogatives. In the future, do you think Will is going to need the ability to get in the face of the Man when irrational, whimsical demands are leveled at him?

He didn't remop the floor, by the way.

Of course, his boss is officious and kind of flaky, and views his employees as solutions to his problems rather than as individuals with hearts, minds, and needs of their own. He is also short. I'm going to reserve comment on all that, because my senior managers read this column.

In the morning, before work, Will dons his colorful shirt and trudges downstairs for a breakfast bar and some serious whining about his situation. The job? Phooey. Can he quit? No. And so on.

At the other end of the day, I ask him, "How did it go?"

"Okay," he says most of the time. Sometimes he says, "It's not so bad."

We leave it at that. And once a week he gives me his paycheck to cash. It's not a lot. But for a kid, it's something. It's better than sponging ten bucks here and there, which he does anyway, thereby learning the immense value of moonlighting.

Besides earning money, he's kind of gotten to like a few of the people at work. In the beginning he didn't get them at all. But now, well, he has anecdotes about a few of them, and now and then they all go out to dinner. He even has a couple of favorites, who help the hours pass while they share the same travails.

And there's this: the knowledge that at some point, probably sooner rather than later, this job will end and with it the resentments, challenges, and probably the friendships that came along with it. Because in the end, that's the nature of jobs--his, yours, and mine.

"I'm never going into retail again," he tells me over a late-night snack not long ago. It's after a long shift, and Will looks tired. I don't blame him for the way he feels, because I'm feeling pretty much the same way, and I'm not even in retail.

"Then you'd better be successful at what you want to do," I tell him sagely.

"I will be," he says, looking pretty determined.

I hope he's right. I know I am. Success is tough to attain and maintain. But it sure beats working.