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In praise being young, and in praise of bad jobs

It is a bad time to be young.
What's left to us can't be undone without it riding on our backs
when young and poor go hand in hand.
It is a bad time to be poor. -- The Rheostatics, Bad Time to Be Poor


As the song says, it's a bad time to be poor. But is there a bad time to be young?  It's easy to see why one might think so, especially if you happen to be young. We're in a stubborn economic slowdown; the federal government is proposing changes to key strands of the social safety net, while the federal minister of finance, Jim Flaherty, made what sounded like a hugely insensitive remark: "I was brought up in a certain way. There is no bad job, the only bad job is not having a job," he told reporters. "I drove a taxi, I refereed hockey. You do what you have to do to make a living."

The question we're tempted to ask then, is not why are the students in Quebec rioting, but rather, why isn't every other student in the country joining them?

But like most apparent injustices, this one is more complicated than it looks. To begin with, being young and poor tend to "go hand in hand" for the simple reason that young people haven't been around long enough to acquire money, or the skills that allow you to make a lot of it. To properly grasp the essential relationship between being young and being poor, watch this video by Louis CK:

This is pretty much just a standup comedian's version of Jim Flaherty's comment. And they aren't wrong. If you're 20, you're probably going to get a shitty job. You know what you should do? Take Louis CK's advice: Do the shit out of it. 

The summer I graduated from university in Montreal, the unemployment rate was almost double what it is today. The year I started, the Quebec government unfroze tuition rates that had been the same since the 1960s -- my total fees doubled in the four years I was at McGill. By the summer of 1993 I had a BA in philosophy, the city was a disaster, and the economy was in the tank. 

Nevertheless, I still had the sense that the world owed me living. What I got, instead, was job as a fishmonger, making $6.15 an hour. 

It was the worst job I ever had. But in a way, it was also the best job I ever had. I did the shit out of it. A few years later, in the summer of 2000, a time when I was still young-ish, and still very poor, Leah Rumack asked me to write about it for Toronto's Now Magazine. (Here's what I wrote).

I promise, you'll learn more from the bad jobs you take as a 20 year old than you will in any other job you'll get. Once you get older, people start giving you jobs because you have skills, training, or ability. And you got those skills or training because you wanted to do the job. That means you're on a glide trajectory, in a comfort zone, following the path of least resistance. The day you start doing a job you like is the day you start to die, just a bit. 

Having a bad job is a sign that you are still young. And as everyone eventually realizes, there is never a bad time to be young.