Teenagers – Smarten Up and Work Hard

“If you want to recapture your youth, just cut off his allowance.” – Al Bernstein

More 16- to 19-year-old kids are spending the summer studying this year than last – 37.6 percent compared to 36.5 percent, according to the Department of Labor.

Some are even forgoing summer jobs, USA Today reports, to better prepare themselves for college. That’s because they realize that, in the long run, they will have better careers and make more money if they are better educated, says Daniel Sullivan, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “The value of school is higher than it used to be,” he says.

In the Masterson family, Number Three Son (NThS) has opted not to study this summer, his last before going off to college. Instead, he is working as a laborer on a construction crew – and we are happy he is.

K and I both grew up poor, so not working was not an option. We didn’t always like the work we did. Much of it seemed pointless and dreary. But it provided us with an income.

In my case, it taught me a great deal about how the working world works and about business. I worked full-time every summer during high school and throughout college and graduate school, scheduling my classes around my jobs.

Many of my fellow students worked too – but the great majority of them were working part-time and as hourly wage earners. I stopped doing that before I finished high school. My friend Peter and I had our own house-painting business – making our money by landing our own customers, pricing the jobs, paying for our own supplies, and working hard to make a profit. Two years later, we were running Reliable Pools, a fast-growing pool-construction business on Long Island.

While other kids our age who came from affluent families relied on their parents for support, Peter and I were paying all our own living expenses and giving money to our parents to help them out.

Those early experiences provided me with three invaluable lessons:

1. What manual labor feels like

When Peter and I painted houses and built pools, we worked hard and fast. When you work with your body all day, you get a base-line understanding of how hard manual labor can be. I don’t believe manual labor is the most difficult work you can do. I have had more difficult jobs since. But I have a very good idea of how it feels to wake up at the crack of dawn and work hard and fast in the sun for 12 or 14 hours a day. I did it. And I could do it again.

On the one hand, I have a healthy respect for what is required to make a living that way. On the other hand, I am not intimidated by it nor do I romanticize it.

2. How manual labor pays

Manual labor is good work if you can get it. It’s generally good for your health (because of all that moving around). And if you are allowed to be in charge of the work you do, it can be psychologically rewarding. In the U.S., it pays about as well as it should – which is to say, pretty well. My son, for example, is making $500 a week – about nine hours a day for five days a week at about $11 an hour. The skilled workers on his construction crew are getting much more than that – two or three times more.

Working as a plumber or carpenter or mason will give you a yearly income of between $60,000 and $80,000 in most places. That’s okay if you want to get rich the slow way – scrimping and saving for 40 years. If you want to do better than that, manual labor isn’t the answer. Peter and I learned that right away. To make six figures, you have to follow the American dream: Start your own business (like we did) and put your mind to work as well as your hands.

3. How demanding a business can be

Once our pool-construction business was up and running, Peter and I were making what seemed like a lot of money. Thinking back, it was probably only about $80,000 a year – but that was worth about what $160,000 is worth today. We were working hard and making more money than we could spend (even after giving some of it to our parents).

From a financial perspective, things were really good. The problem was that the business was taking too much of my time. I had been able to go to school and work 40 hours a week for someone else – but, as a business owner, I couldn’t limit my work to 40 hours. When this became apparent, I stepped away from the business and went back to making a living as a carpenter and bartender while taking college classes. I missed the big money, but I was pretty sure I was doing the right thing.

The combination of being a manual laborer and a business owner had been satisfying, physically and financially, but there were parts of my brain and heart that were inactive during those years. Ever since I wrote my first poem at age six, I had the notion that I wanted to make my living by writing. Quitting that good job allowed me to do it.

K and I are happy that NThS is learning how manual labor feels. His older brothers spent a summer digging out a fish pond when they were in their teens, and now it’s his turn. He is making money that he will need in the fall – not for tuition and housing and food (we are paying for that), but for his personal expenses. That’s the way we did it with his brothers. I always swore I would make my kids work to pay for all their own college expenses, but when the time came I couldn’t do it.

Making Number One Son and Number Two Son work part-time for their spending money in college was good for them. It probably would have been better if we had not paid for their other expenses… but we did.

And it turned out fine. Both of the older boys are working full-time – doing what they set out to do – and earning their own living. They are forced to live frugally, because they live in very expensive cities (LA and NYC), but they seem perfectly happy – as K and I were when we were young and on a tight budget.

I am proud of the fact that they are able to take care of themselves financially, that they are grateful for what they have gotten, and that they never ask us for money. When your children are young, you want them to be good at everything they do, and you help them as much as you can. When they get older, you want them to be independent – so they can be successful without you.

My older boys are both independent. NThS is a work in progress. I have the feeling that he will end up being an entrepreneur, like his old man. If so, the experience he’s having this summer will be invaluable.

[Ed. Note: Michael Masterson and a group of the world’s leading Internet marketing experts will be revealing their strategies for getting a brand-new business off the ground… and making an existing business grow like crazy. Reserve your spot at this fall’s Info Marketing BootcampMaking a Fast Fortune on the “Other Side” of the Internet.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]