USA TODAY International Edition
Snow shoveling was my intro to capitalism
Where are all our young workers now?
Back in the 1960s, as an adolescent and then as an early teenager, I shoveled snow for my neighbors to earn a little pocket change. Rarely where I live now in New York City do I see any kids doing the same.
No sooner would a heavy snow land in our New Jersey suburb — like the storm hitting the Northeast today — than I’d gingerly venture out of our split- level colonial, metal shovel in hand, in pursuit of hard cash. I’d bundle myself in a parka, scarf, cap with ear muffs, galoshes and gloves, ready to do big business.
I went house to house ringing doorbells around our block to ask whether fellow residents wished to avail themselves of my amateur services in snow removal. Most people said no, either politely or otherwise, but eventually someone said yes.
And off I would be, scooping and scraping away the snow along the front steps, the sidewalk and the driveway, dollar signs in my eyes. I’d heave the fluffy white stuff into piles, imagining what I might buy with my take. Soon I would be sore, sweating, panting from putting my back and legs into every swipe. But I certainly felt rugged as never before.
Art of the deal
I also felt like quite the little businessman. We would of course set a fee upfront. A neighbor might initiate an offer or ask me to name my price. I always accepted the first offer tendered or compromised on any back and forth because I had no idea whether — much less how — to negotiate.
Once I cleared the paths, I approached the front door to report my job complete and invite a review of my handiwork. Customers invariably indicated satisfaction. And, as I left with a dollar or two in my hands — or once in a while even five, thanks to a generous tip — the feeling was entirely mutual.
This was the first money I ever earned, coming shortly before I took on a local newspaper delivery route. It was also my inaugural outing improvising as my own boss. I got a taste of Entrepreneurship 101 that trained me not only for employment with clients and colleagues at corporations, but also for careers as a freelancer and consultant.
Nor was I alone as an opportunistic start- up. My friends likewise scrambled out at first light during blizzards to compete for market share. Later, we compared notes on which neighbors paid how much, vital data to be recorded for the next nor’easter.
I worry that kids today are missing out on this valuable education. Obstacles abound.
Child labor regulations
For starters, those kids are more likely to be physically inactive as well as overweight or obese; obesity among children and adolescents has almost tripled since 1980. Too many also prefer or participate in sedentary indoor pursuits from social media to video games. In fact, they spend an average six to eight hours a day in sedentary activities, both during and after school.
But public policies have also all but eliminated any demand to support ambitious local kids.
In the winter of 2015- 16, thanks to a debate over whether kids should be required to get a $ 450 business license to go door to door offering their services to shovel the stoop down the block, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had to sign a bill giving special permission. That’s not unusual. Because of child labor regulations or permitting rules, even sidewalk lemonade stands run by children are technically illegal in more than 30 states.
Even with older children, there’s a decline in the number who work. The share of teens in the labor force peaked in 1979 at nearly 60%. In 2019, just 35% of 16- to 19- year- olds stretched their entrepreneurial muscles.
Yet I see a few signs for hope. Once in a while, a kid lugging a shovel might show up at your door on a snowy day to solicit your business. I heard a few years ago about two Connecticut boys shoveling snow to save enough to go on a school field trip. And someone even invented an app that matches shovelers with customers.
Oddly enough, even more than a half- century later, I have yet to outgrow the giddiness that overcomes me any time a big snowstorm hits. Yes, despite my creaky joints, I’m ready to throw snowballs, build a snowman and create snow angels. But I also still feel that familiar urge to get out there and shovel a sidewalk for just one more payday.