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01/01/2010

My Son Discovers the Down Economy

3692131132_077eeed20c My son wanted to be a paperboy after he read Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins books. Henry has a paper route and he has a dog. Noah had the dog and he wanted the route. When he was nine and finally old enough to get a job delivering the suburban weekly, he was pretty excited.

Like lots of parents, we saw this as an opportunity to teach our son about responsibility and budgeting. He has to wake up early on the paper delivery days, fold his 130 papers and get them on people’s doorsteps rain, shine, snow or ice. As to budgeting, he puts 10 percent aside for tzedakah (the Hebrew word for charity) and then it’s an even 50/50 split to his long-term savings and his short-term back pocket. At around fifty bucks a month, it was a lot of money for a 9-year old kid whose only interest was collecting Pokemon cards and buying candy at the rec center.

Now that he’s closing in on thirteen, his money doesn’t seem to go quite as far. Video games cost a lot more than candy bars but he’s learned how to save his money and plan ahead for big purchases.

Recently he got another lesson in economics when the paper announced they’d be making some changes in the pay scale. See, the system works like this: All the kids get a flat fee per paper, which rises and falls depending on whether they go out collecting. (They get a bonus if they collect – the paper is free but theoretically takes donations.) Then they get another bit of change for each advertising insert they have to fold into the paper and deliver. Inserts are an annoyance. They add to the folding time and weigh down the bag so it makes sense the kids get paid more when they’re included.

The new system cuts their payment for inserts but the paper is going to include more ads so the kids, said the announcement, will be able to make up the difference in volume. What this really means is more work and less pay.

I’ve been a freelance writer now for a little over ten years and I’ve watched the print industry tank with the rise of the Internet. I’ve watched the ranks of freelancers swell as my journalist friends get laid off and start scrambling for the few jobs out there. In other words, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that my son’s income was shrinking along with everyone else with a job tied to the newspaper business.

A couple of my friends with kid delivery people were angry about the pay cuts and called the offices to complain. But my husband and I took it as an opportunity to sit our kid down and talk about the realities of working in a changing (shrinking) economy. We told him that when profits disappear it’s the people lowest on the totem pole whose incomes get hit – like the kids with the after-school paper routes. Either you suck it up and take the pay cut or you quit and don’t have any pay at all because in this economy jobs aren’t so easy to come by – especially for a kid without a worker’s permit.

We told him that he really doesn’t want to be in this position as an adult and will need to make sure that he keeps his job skills flexible enough to survive a big industry shake-up. And we also talked about the people we know who used to work for newspapers and magazines who are hitting the pavement looking for jobs and getting creative about finding new work. He might want to do the same this summer when jobs for willing kids might open up (mowing lawns and raking leaves).

I realize that my husband and I – survivors of several lay-offs and sudden disappearing freelance gigs – are being shaped by and are shaping our kids by our economic experiences in much the same way that our grandparents were shaped by The Great Depression. This is why my first thought wasn’t to call up the circulation director and give him a lecture about my kid’s salary and instead it was to put my arm around my son and welcome him to the real world.

While I’m not glad that the little suburban paper is doing poorly (there are grown-ups taking pay cuts there, too, after all), I am grateful that my son is getting this economic lesson relatively painlessly. I mean, he’s a kid. Fewer video games isn’t any fun but it’s not like finding out you won’t be able to make your mortgage. Hopefully he’ll find the vagaries of employment in the new millennium less confusing than his parents have and hopefully his learning curve won’t be quite so steep.

paper picture thanks to Hitchster on Flickr


Dawn sends her son out to deliver papers every Wednesday morning from their home in Worthington, OH. She blogs at this woman’s work.

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