Your First Job Is More Important Than You Might Think

My first job was working for a small theater group at the Natural History Museum in Cincinnati, OH. It was the ideal job for a slightly shy teen who thought the stage was in her future (not so much). Running around with like-minded high schoolers behind the scenes of the giant, old train station that held the museum was amazing. Being the rear end of the two-person dinosaur costume was not — especially when paired with the weird guy who loved to wear saggy jeans (so much butt crack). I think I made $5.25 an hour, but the experience was priceless.

It's safe to say all of us have a story or two about our first jobs — the good, the bad, and the ugly. Journalist Merritt Watts explores all this and more in her new book, First Jobs: True Tales Of Bad Bosses, Quirky Coworkers, Big Breaks, And Small Paychecks (Picador). In the book, she's collected 50 true first-job stories from people from all walks of life. Not surprisingly, there are stories from ice-cream scoopers (three, to be exact) and salesgirls — those rite-of-passage jobs that so many teens work each summer. But, Watts also interviewed a pet-grave-digger and a nude model, each of whom had unique experiences that led to some eye-opening revelations.

Ahead, an interview with Watts about the inspiration for her book — plus the craziest stories she heard along the way, and how employment has changed for young people over the years. Stay tuned, as we'll feature an excerpt from the book on Refinery29 tomorrow.

What inspired you to write this book?
"The thing I like about first jobs is that they’re a great equalizer. Everyone starts somewhere, right? So, talking to people about first jobs gave me a chance to talk to everybody I could think of: my mayor, my mattress salesman, my mom… They’re all in there. When you talk to someone about their first job, you get to learn a little bit about how they grew up and what kind of kid they were, which is always interesting. Plus, when someone is reflecting on an early job, they usually can’t help sharing a few gems of career advice they picked up along the way, which I found incredibly useful. They’ve lived through these mistakes, so you don’t have to."

How did you find all these people to talk to about their first jobs?
"I started close to home, interviewing my family and friends, but once I saw how excited people were to take this trip down memory lane, I was emboldened to walk up to strangers and start chatting with them. I met people on buses and planes and at bars. First jobs are really the ultimate icebreaker. Then, I started approaching people I admired. Jeni Britton Bauer, for example, of Jeni’s ice cream, is such a cool, creative entrepreneur (and her ice cream is to die for). The fact that her first job was actually scooping ice cream was a fun coincidence, and she had some smart advice. Then, I started filling in holes I saw in the larger first-job picture. For example, I wondered what would it be like if you legally couldn’t get a first job, and that led me to interview an undocumented immigrant. What if you never thought you’d be working, and then found yourself starting a first job unexpectedly? That’s how I got in touch with a Rosie the Riveter."

What is the craziest story you heard? What is your favorite?
"It’s so impossible to pick a favorite story! I approached this book like an oral history project — taking my tape recorder everywhere I went to ask people about their first jobs. So, it’s hard for me to separate the stories from the memories I have of the interviews. For example, I’ll never forget sitting in the inspiring Rosie the Riveter museum in Richmond, CA, listening to a real-life riveter talk about how much it meant to her to be able to work during World War II. I’ll also never forget sitting around my dining room table interviewing my mom about her first job in the bacon-packing factory, and learning all sorts of new things about her and my grandparents.

"The book includes some odd jobs, like a pet-grave-digger or a dating-service receptionist, but the truly crazy jobs I heard about were always crazy because of the people someone worked with. Being an after-school office receptionist, for example, is a pretty normal job, but not when part of your job is helping your boss rig up a tape recorder in her underwear so she can covertly record a conversation with her ex."

Why do you think a first job is so important?
"For plenty of people, a first job is the first time they are interacting with an adult who is not invested in their success. It’s not a teacher, a parent, or a coach. They don’t necessarily care how you feel; they just want you to get the job done! To me, that’s the first taste of true independence. More than a first car or a first kiss, or any of that stuff, a first job is the moment when you’re really out in the world, to sink or swim.

"But, I was surprised to learn there’s actually a biological reason that a first job is so important. The teenage brain goes through a period of growth that is second only to the level of development we experience in the first 18 months of life, when we learn to walk and talk. That’s a pretty big deal! This second period of growth gives us the opportunity to form thousands of new neural connections, increasing our ability to learn things like decision-making, self-discipline, and emotion management — all that fun frontal-lobe stuff. But, in order to actually develop these sought-after skills, we have to be in the kinds of situations that force you to learn and practice them. That’s where a first job comes in."
Did you have to leave any stories out?
"I left plenty of stories out. Not because they weren’t great, but because I really wanted the book to have a wide range of stories from different eras, industries, and backgrounds. I did keep one overlap, though: There are three ice-cream scoopers in the book. I wanted to keep them all in there because it’s such a quintessential summer job, and each of the scoopers had such a different experience. One scooper was fired, but learned important lessons that are still helping her in her role as a manager at a hospital. Another scooper hated every minute of that job, and it compelled her to find something she was truly passionate about, which was how she got into fashion. (She’s now a big-time fashion editor!) And, another conquered her paralyzing shyness by scooping ice cream, and now owns an award-winning line of artisanal ice cream and ice cream stores."  

The book includes interviews with people who worked jobs in the '40s/'50s/'60s, as well as from people who just had their first jobs a few years ago. How have things changed in the workplace over the years?
"One main difference is that early jobs today are harder to get. There’s been a 40% drop in youth employment in the last 12 years. Sure, part of that is kids being busier with camp and soccer and all that stuff. But, the other part is that, as the economy contracts, there are fewer temporary entry-level jobs available. Today, so many people depend on these formerly entry-level jobs to support their families. So, for first-time job seekers, getting your foot in the door can be even more challenging. I think that makes it even more of a milestone, and it also means teens take their first jobs more seriously, because it’s not a given that they’ll get one in the first place."

You talk in the introduction about your first job as a telemarketer. How did that experience prepare you to become a journalist?
"It’s funny — when I was working in the call center for a summer, cold-calling people to ask, 'Hi, do you have a few minutes to talk to me about your health benefits?' I never, ever thought I’d use that skill again. But, when it came time to get serious about reporting this book, I found myself cold-calling people saying, 'Hi, do you have a few minutes to talk to me about your first job?' and it kind of all came flooding back! At least my phone now doesn’t start auto-dialing the next number as soon as someone hangs up on you…that was the worst."

More from Work & Money