Navigating A Dead-End Economy

Mark Anthony Waters, 18, talks about the fast-food job he got last summer. He had a boss who made him miserable. So he left the job. Since then he's had a hard time getting any sort of job. He plans to go to college, because he doesn't want a low-wage job again.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As the U.S. economy continues to shed jobs, more and more adult workers will be applying for jobs once held by teenagers. Mark Anthony Waters is 18 years old, and finds himself asking what he will and won't do for money?

Mr. MARK ANTHONY WATERS (Resident, Pinole, California): This summer, I decided to get a job. I told everyone I was working at a cheesecake shop, because I thought that sounded kind of glamorous, but in fact, I worked at a fast-food chain. I hated that place from my first day up until my last. I knew from Jump Street I'd have to earn my paycheck serving customers and making sandwiches. The extra manual labor, mopping bathroom floors, scrubbing the grill, wasn't fun. But a job like that really isn't supposed to be. What I didn't expect was a co-worker who kept accidentally brushing up against me, given me unwanted attention. I could finally understand what it's like for girls to deal with some creep at work who wants to sleep with them.

But I never told my boss. How could I? My manager was always playing mind games with me. Constantly nitpicking everything I did, from my look, to how I rolled sandwiches. I felt like every time I came in with the smile, she revolved her whole day around making me frown. Like she wanted to see how long it will take for Anthony to crack. And I really almost did. That job filled me with self-loathing, because I felt like if I stayed there, I'd grow accustomed to the fast-food life. That's something people in my family would be proud of, if I become manager, say. But not me, I'm trying to get to college. If I work where I could really help people, that job was the fear I was running from. So finally, I ran from the job.

Little did I know, just a few weeks later, the stock market would tank. With that came historically low youth employment rates, according to a research out of Northeastern University. Until recently, I thought I could always get a job, as long as I was willing to flip burgers or do manual labor. Now, I'm not so sure. I've applied to a bunch of retail jobs since leaving the fast-food industry, and none of them worked out. Truthfully, I'm not sure if my bad luck is because of the economy. The people at H & M and Macy's didn't tell my why they weren't hiring me. They just said no. But I can tell you, knowing how the precedent is up there, it just makes it harder to keep trying. And I've seen first-hand what a miserable job can do to a person.

My mother comes home from work angry. She's always telling me to go to school so I won't have a horrible job like hers. She's an activities director at a convalescent home. When she used to tell me how much she hated some other people at her job - not the residents, mind you; her supervisors - I thought, she's being overdramatic. If it's that bad, I've always wondered, why doesn't she quit? Now, I realize my mom just can't up and quit her job, especially in this market. She has a household to run, and our survival, hers and mine to think about. Bills and babies, that what she calls it. I just want my life to be a lot more than that.

SIEGEL: Mark Anthony Waters lives in Pinole, California. He comes to us by way of Youth Radio in Oakland.

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