By Lianne van Goethem
As many other students, I have a part-time job to be able to afford living on my own, buying groceries, and going to university. My job is at a well-known retail shop at a very busy train station, a place where a lot of people come by every day. Many of my colleagues are other students my age, around 20 years old, and working part-time. But, besides the older full-timers, there are also many colleagues my age who work there full-time and no longer go to school or college. These young full-timers grabbed my attention. I became interested in their experiences in their ‘working life’ at this young age, as well as their aspirations for the future. I could understand why they work full-time, because it earns them money and they can live off of that money. Yet to me it did not make much sense for young people not to study, because, in my view, young people can develop themselves fully through studying. However, in my research I found that young full-timers also learn from their everyday experiences and develop their own skills and sense of self-worth through their performances at the workplace.
Because youth are seen as being of great importance to a society’s future, youth studies generally focus on the development of youth through education and cultural activities. Little attention is paid to young people in the work field. The little literature there is, is mostly concerned with part-time working youth, assuming that they combine paid work with study. Also, research on young workers’ behavior, attitudes and values is primarily focused on family background and influences (Loughlin & Barling, 2001). Very little is known about the everyday experiences and practices of young employees during their time at work.
According to Loughlin and Barling (2001), working at a young age can be harmful. Early and long exposure to work has been related to more stress, lower school performance, alcohol abuse and illegal activities. The authors suggest a correlation between the age young people start working part-time and a predisposition towards remaining in the workforce full-time. They further point out that the quality of work plays an important role in the development of young workers’ attitudes, values and beliefs. When working in ‘poor’-quality jobs – associated with insecurity, low income and no opportunities for learning new skills – they are more likely to be cynical about their job and less motivated. When working in ‘good’-quality jobs – associated with learning new skills and developing themselves in their work and social interactions – they are more likely to be motivated and happy in their ‘working life’ (Loughlin & Barling 2001). The question remains whether these definitions of ‘poor’ and ‘good’-quality jobs also correspond to the experiences of the young workers themselves.
For a different approach to the experiences of young workers, I will use Goffman’s theory of performance (1959, discussed in Calhoun et al., 2012). Goffman compares life with acting, setting a stage for the performer, with an audience observing. The audience influences the performer and the performer influences the audience. In this case, the workplace – the well-known retail shop at the busy train station, let us call it Shop X – is the stage. The young worker is the performer. The young worker has a way of acting and he or she accepts the audience: the coworkers, the managers and the customers. I am interested in those ways of acting. By observing the performances of young full-time employees, and comparing them with those of older employees and part-time employees, I have aimed to gain deeper insights into their values and attitudes.
In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Scott (1990) provides further insights that are also useful for this research. He also focuses on performance, using terms as public transcripts and hidden transcripts. Hidden transcripts refer to discourses, gestures, speeches, or practices that are excluded from the public transcripts. The public transcripts are those speeches, practices and gestures resulting from the exercise of power. My research is mostly concerned with hidden transcripts, which represent critiques from the oppressed social group. The critiques go on offstage, where power-holders cannot see or hear them. This can be seen as a form of agency. Scotts’ theory can thus be related to Goffman’s theory and more general literature about oppressed social groups. In this case, the young full-timers at Shop X can be seen as an oppressed group, being dependent on the company they work for, the company that owns all the retail shops at this train station. They don’t have much to say for themselves at the workplace and rely on the decisions made by the invisible big bosses and the managers on site. But like the oppressed social groups discussed by Scott, they don’t undergo oppression passively. Dealing with oppression, young full-time employees can have the urge to put their own stamp on things.
This view of young full-time employees as an oppressed group can also be seen in the larger context of the global economy. One hallmark of the current global economy is the process of individualization of risk and performance. There is a need for more flexibility, plurality and risky forms of employment in the workforce. Employers consider what is best for them, and not specifically for their employees. Therefore they prefer part-time workers, such as students like myself, who are more likely to be able to work the increasing irregular work hours. Regardless of the work hours, young employees are preferred as they are more easily discarded in case of necessary lay-offs. Young full-time employees are thus dealing greatly with these new risks and insecurities (Mills, 2004). How does that affect their visions and aspirations for their future?
My research was guided by the following main question: How do the everyday work experiences of young full-time employees at Shop X shape their self-performance at the workplace and their work-aspirations for the future? The three points of interests – everyday work experiences, self-performance and work-aspirations – formed the basis for the following sub-questions: What are young full-time employees’ everyday experiences at the workplace? What acts – of resistance and adjustment – do they develop in their self-performance? How do young full-time employees view their future?
Performance can best be studied through participant observation. Since I myself work part-time at Shop X, I am already participating. During the participant observation, in-between serving customers and doing the other tasks I get paid to do, I have focused on the performances of the young full-time employees, but also on those of other young part-time employees and older full-time employees. How do they handle customers? How do they talk with coworkers? What do they say about their work? What do they say about their work environment? Do they seem happy with their work? These are some of the questions that I considered during the observations.
In addition to the participant observation, I have interviewed five young coworkers. Loosely framed around the theoretical concepts discussed above, the interviews were meant to reflect deeper on their views and experiences. This paper presents the results of these interviews and several weeks of observation. First, a day in the life of a young full-timer will be described. Then, four themes will be discussed based on the research findings, thoughts and ideas from myself and the young full-timers interviewed. These themes are affectivity; complaining; handling criticism and complaints; and aspirations. The paper will conclude with answers to the research questions, linked to previously described theories and youth agency.
A day in the life of
The train station where Shop X is located is the most important central point in the city. It is also one of the busiest train stations in the Netherlands, being connected to a lot of foreign stations. Thousands of people come and go by this station every day; commuters, students, tourists and people taking a day trip to the city. The shops in the station vary from food stands, book shops, magazines and even clothing stores. Because the trains ride almost 24/7, those shops also have very long opening hours. Most open at 6 o’clock in the morning and close at midnight, and often even later than that. Because of this there are several 8-hour shifts for employees in the shop I work at. The morning shift starts at 5.30 AM, and ends at 2 PM. At 2 PM there is an in-between shift that ends at 10 PM. At 4 PM the employees for the evening shift come in, they close the store at midnight. Next to these shifts, there are also more flexible shifts, based on rush-hours. These hours are between 7 AM and 9 AM, 11 AM and 14 PM and 17 PM and 19 PM. Those are the times commuters come to go to their work, lunchtime and the time commuters go home from their work.
What does a day of work at Shop X look like? Having an in-between shift, I start at 2 PM. I come in fifteen minutes early, because we are supposed to be present at least five minutes before our shift starts. This is because coworkers from the morning shift want to go home on time, and we have to take over. While I am on my way to the canteen to get dressed into my working clothes, I meet the supervisor of that day and also the manager. I get instructions as to where, at which department, I am positioned that day. Today it is the ‘take-away’. It is the part of the store where we prepare sandwiches, sweet treats, our typical sausages and other hot meals out of the oven. This part of the store is relatively small, and it is almost always very busy with customers, so we have to work hard to make sure all the products are ready to be sold. Usually we work at this department with at least four people. Two at the service and cash desks, one at the oven to bake and one making sandwiches. Every position involves specific tasks that have to be done.
When I come in at the ‘take-away’ I say hello to my coworkers and check the day planner. This day planner holds information about who works which hours and who is at which department. Today, I am taking over the person making sandwiches. Before I start my shift she explains how things are going. She tells me how busy it has been so far, what sandwiches she has already made in advance and what things she has already cleaned. The one making sandwiches always has to make sure the workspace is clean and the products are cooled.
When I have taken over the sandwich department I start making the sandwiches that are sold out. This is actually what I will be doing most of the time; making the sandwiches that are sold out or almost sold out. Sandwiches are always fresh this way. I also make sure I make some extra before rush hour starts. During rush hour, I can never keep up. The person at the oven also has to deal with this; making sure that everything is baked in time to be sold during rush hour. Because of this, all employees working at the take-away try to help each other. We work closely together and communication is really important. Especially the person making the sandwiches and the person at the oven give each other a lot of instructions and help each other out. Sometimes working that close together can have quite negative effects. Not everyone agrees with each other all the time, and a lot of irritation can build up. Overall, the principal attitude at work is: ‘Just do it, and try to have fun while you’re at it’.
Because of the fact that it is always very busy at the shops at this train station, there are also a lot of people at work there. Most shops are very small, so they literally work close together. The social environment is very important for the employees, since we have to work with people all 8 hours of the shift. Those coworkers are also very different. There seems to be some sort of division in employees. First, there are the older full-timers, mostly working morning shifts, and needing to take care of their families; second, there are the part-timers, mostly students working the afternoons or evenings; third, there are the young full-timers who have chosen this for job; and finally, there are the young full-timers who didn’t choose this job. This division is actually maintained by the management; it is practical for planning purposes.
The young full-timers are the most flexible employees when it comes to being available for shifts. They don’t go to school and are not yet dealing with children they have to take care of. So they are often used to fill all the shifts that the older full-timers and the part-timers cannot fill. Their hours can be very different. One week they can work the in-between shifts, but the next week they can also work the evening shift or morning shift when there is a shortage. Because of that they work a lot with both the older full-timers and the part-timers, while older full-timers and part-timers almost never work together.
This puts the young full-timers in an ‘in-between’ position. This becomes especially clear in the different sense of humor and how people act and react around each other. The young full-timers seem to understand both the older full-timers and the young part-timers, while the latter two groups often don’t understand each others’ ways and jokes. Or they just don’t think their humor is funny. For example, when older full-timers work together, they can act quite weird, they make funny noises, sing silly songs and make sexually tinted jokes. But that can change in a matter of seconds. The whole atmosphere of making jokes and laughter can come to an end because of one single word or action. The part-timers are almost always joking, but in a subtler manner. It seems they can do both things, joke and work, at the same time.
One young full-timer sort of described her own ‘in-between’ position. She mentioned that she sometimes doesn’t understand why older full-timers can suddenly act so angry and serious, just like that. She sometimes wished that the older full-timers that she works a lot with could also make jokes all the time. She likes the fact that part-timers do that, but then she often feels she cannot make the same sort of jokes as they do. She thinks part-timers joke a lot about things they experience in college or when going out to party and the things they experience there. She finds those stories very nice and interesting. On the one hand, she can relate to those stories, being young and liking to party too. On the other hand, she cannot understand them, because she doesn’t experience those same things in the same way. For example:
‘Those part-timers often live with roommates, you know, that must be very nice. They experience a lot of funny things, like playing around the house and being able to go out and come home when they want to. I would like that but I am still living with my mother. I don’t really have another choice, because I don’t get the finances that they get for their studies. And I also don’t make that much money here. So yeah, my life at home is a lot more boring I think. I still have to take my mothers’ wishes into account, I can’t go partying and come home at 5 AM on a Thursday, because I’ll wake up my mother but also because I have to work the next day!’
One aspect that is clearly present in the everyday lives of all employees at the train station, especially at one particular store, is complaining. It seems that not a day goes by correctly. There is always something wrong. Issues everyone complains about include the planning of the shifts, the actions of the manager and the assistants, the ideas that come from the bosses at the headquarters, and the behavior of some customers.
Everyone that comes in at work always first checks the day planning. And it is almost always the case that not enough people are present during the day. When someone calls in sick, it is even worse. Employees talk about it with each other, and they come to the conclusion that there is always at least one person missing and that there are just too many things to do for which at least one person extra is needed. So when someone calls in sick there is never any back-up. In that case employees will say:
‘We’ll do our best to get everything done and to make sure the line of customers doesn’t get too long, but it’s not our fault if at the end of the day a lot of things aren’t finished.’
This statement is mostly made by employees working the evening shift, they have to end the day. Those evening shifts are mostly filled by young full-timers or part-timers. With such a statement they make clear that some things are not their responsibility, but that they do have the motivation and skills to try to fix the things that the managers failed to do. It is the managers, or the bosses at the headquarters, that failed in making good arrangements for the back-up plan and the necessary extra employees.
One other thing that a lot of employees complain about is the manager and his assistants. Employees tell each other that they are the only ones working hard and that the manager and assistants are often not doing anything or just checking their phones, joking around with each other and telling others what to do. All employees, both full-timers and part-timers, are also annoyed by the fact that they often have to work overtime to help and get things done, and that especially the manager always leaves exactly at 4 PM, and sometimes even earlier.
‘That is just not fair, it’s like he doesn’t even care!’
The big bosses at the headquarters are not liked very much by the employees either. According to the employees, those bosses have no clue whatsoever about the work and activities nor any practical knowledge. Sometimes they come to the store and have a look around to see how things are going. At that moment they always have a lot to say and new ideas that they think will work very well. Not only when they are coming by, but also through emails they send in ideas to keep employees posted. The big bosses are often the subject of jokes. Employees, mostly the young and older full-timers, can have a big laugh about the idea of working closely together one day with one of them, and then trying to explain the simplest things to them:
‘Simple things they probably can’t even do!’
The behavior of some customers is also very often the source of complaints. Most employees get annoyed by the fact that some customers don’t greet and are rude towards them. Some customers are very arrogant and act very ‘diva-ish’. These complaints seem to provoke a specific form of behavior, especially among the older full-timers. For example, one time I saw an older coworker refuse to help a customer until he responded to her saying ‘Hello’ or ‘Good afternoon’. She kept repeating her greeting for minutes, until the customer understood that he had to respond. Only when he did, did she help him. A few days later, when I was working a morning shift with one young full-timer and two older full-timers, I noticed that the young full-timer did the very same thing. Later on, I interviewed her and she told me she was very proud of her work and she wanted to do her job properly, but she couldn’t stand it if customers were not nice to her or seemed to look down on her. She had seen how that older full-timer handled those rude customers, and she decided that was a very smart thing to do.
‘We have to stand up for ourselves sometimes, you know. I work very hard here and I like doing it. So when some people come in that are acting stupid, I have to show my confidence and react to them’.
This shows that experiences at work can influence performances directly. This young full-timer has been socialized at the workplace in a specific way, seeing and learning how other full-timers handled specific experiences and then using this in her own performance. Which for her increased her sense of self-worth as a proud employee.
The statement above comes from a young full-timer who had chosen to do this job. It seems that she, and other young full-timers who chose this job, view the behavior of the older full-timers as an example. The effects of rude and arrogant customers are different for the part-timers and the young full-timers who didn’t choose this job. Even though they also complain about some customers, they seem to not take it too seriously and just let it go by. The part-timers and these other young full-timers are not as actively adapting their performance to those customers as the older and younger full-timers who chose this job do.
Handling criticism and complaints
Next to the fact that employees are complaining, they also have to deal with complaints and criticism on their account. The headquarters and the management, other employees and even some customers sometimes complain about employees or criticize their work.
The division of the four groups described before becomes clear again in dealing with criticism, especially criticism coming from the headquarters or the management. The young full-timers who chose this job and older full-timers are often very proud and motivated and they want to do well. They listen carefully to criticism and make a well thought of decision in how to handle it. They take it seriously. Even when the criticism turns out to be unfounded and the management or headquarters has the wrong ideas, they first listen before they ‘make fun’ of management and headquarters or change it into complaining about them. The young full-timers who didn’t choose this job and most of the part-timers seem to not take criticism so seriously. They often just let it pass by, just like the unfriendly behavior of some customers.
Employees also have some things to say about each other and the way they work and do things. Especially the older full-timers seem to criticize the part-timers a lot. Mostly about the way they do their job-related activities but also about their attitudes. Older full-timers tend to think that part-timers are lazy and not serious enough. But while the behavior of the part-timers resembles that of young full-timers who didn’t choose this job, the older full-timers never seem to criticize those young full-timers the way they criticize part-timers. They seem to feel more sympathy for young full-timers, even if the latter didn’t choose the job and aren’t as proud of it.
Part-timers seem to be the ones dealing with the most criticism coming from other employees, but they are also the most accepting of that criticism. They are more likely to accept criticism coming from either older or younger full-timers. Some casual conversation with other part-timers made clear that they accept this criticism because they do not really care about it. One part-timer said:
‘Whatever makes them happy.’
While the young full-timers seem to be more reluctant than the older ones to criticize part-timers, they also won’t accept criticism coming from part-timers. This is also true for older full-timers, criticism coming from part-timers is not appreciated. Criticism coming from young full-timers, whether they chose this job or not, will not be accepted by older full-timers either. One day, a part-time employee criticized the way in which an older full-timer did her job. There was a very long line of customers and one customer wanted something that was sold out, a sandwich. The part-timer stated that the full-timer, who was in charge of the sandwiches that day, could make one for the customer. The older full-timer did not agree with this, because she was busy cleaning and planned to make the sandwiches in about half an hour. The part-timer objected and they began fighting. All other employees, especially the young full-timers, were shocked when the part-timer then decided to quit. She stated that she couldn’t handle this kind of attitude and that she couldn’t work with her again. Casual conversations after this event made clear that most young full-timers were going to keep their criticisms to themselves for a while. They did not want to start a big fight and work with irritation and awkward situations. There was no use for these fights.
Sometimes customers criticize or complain about employees. A customer may complain, for example, about an unfriendly employee, not being able to understand or hear the employee, or wanting something that is sold out. A tense or uncomfortable situation can arise from that. Most of the time those criticisms from customers are not fair from the viewpoint of the employees. Sometimes employees just let it go, but other times they can react in a way that can create a big fight. One time, a customer began yelling at a young full-time employee and even invited her to go outside and fight because she started to yell back. A customer can also complain through the telephone or an email. They can fill in a form to make an official complaint about someone. A manager first sees the complaint and then decides whether or not it is necessary to talk to the employee at issue. Handling those complaints is mostly done in a quiet and calm way.
In general, it seems that complaints and criticisms coming from headquarters, management and other employees have more impact than complaints coming from customers. The information coming from customers almost never influences further behavior, only prompting direct reactions such as an argument. Criticisms coming from headquarters, management and other employees can change some actions, as employees take it in, reflect on it and adjust their further behavior.
When it comes to ideas and wishes for the future the division in young full-timers is of great importance again. The young full-timers who did not choose this job are often more pessimistic about their workplace and about their future there. One young full-timer, for example, has a diploma in hairdressing and wants to find a job as a hairdresser in the near future. For now she thinks it is fine to work at the shop, but she does not expect it to last. This aspiration resembles the ideas that part-time employees have about the future. These students also have different goals than to work at Shop X at this busy train station forever.
As for the young full-timers who did choose this job, their wishes for the future also vary. One young full-timer I had a conversation with told me that she used to be team leader, a supervisor, but that she had been set back to be a normal employee, because of some issues she had with another supervisor. She said she had a lot of thoughts and ideas about how to improve the workplace and generally how to make the store more successful. But because of her earlier experiences as a supervisor and the fact that she had been set back, she did not want to be in that position again.
‘It’s fine like this I guess. It’s not like they are going to listen to me this time. It isn’t even that special, to be a supervisor’.
She based this statement on the fact that she wasn’t listened to the first time, and that, even as a supervisor, she had no ‘special’ or different influence on decisions or anything than any normal employee had. This can be seen as one form of hidden transcript, a complaint about the fact that there are differences in status of employees, but not really differences in job-activities and influence. At least from her point of view.
Other young full-timers who had chosen to work at this job seemed to be more motivated to continue. One person I spoke with thought he could teach the older employees to be more flexible, stating that many of them could learn from the young full-timers. Another young full-timer who is very motivated and proud of her work did think that she could grow and develop herself in this particular workplace, but she also thought that:
‘[Being a supervisor] or something like that would be too hard. What I do now is also really important.’
The difference between this employee and the employee who used to be supervisor lies in the fact that the latter had experience in both situations, and that the former accepts the ideas about supervisors that are ‘written in the public transcript’, as employees with more influence and more difficult tasks to handle.
It is clear that not all young full-time employees share the same position, thoughts and aspirations regarding the workplace, at Shop X in this busy train station. However, there are some interesting patterns in work experiences, self-performances and work-aspirations. Regarding the first sub-question of my research – What are young full- time employees’ everyday experiences? – I have found that working with people, coworkers and customers, and complaining and dealing with complaints are important aspects of the everyday work-experience.
To answer the second sub-question – ‘What acts do they develop in their self-performance?’ – we need to take into account the division in employees. Young full-timers who chose the job seem to adopt the acts of older full-timers, for example in the way in which they handle rude and arrogant customers. Humor also plays a major part in developing appropriate acts. Young full-timers seem to be able to switch between different senses of humor, relating to both older full-timers and part-timers. Some ways of joking are directed at the management or the headquarters, and also include complaining. Making jokes, behind the bosses’ back, is a way of resisting. Scott’s (1990) theory is thus very present in this research. The way employees make jokes about the bosses is a hidden transcript. It is also a way to influence their work and the workplace where they can. Being at the whims of the changing global economy (Mills, 2004), their acts of complaining and making jokes are one form of agency that also gives them a sense of control.
The answer to the last sub-question is made clear in the last theme about aspirations. ‘How do young full-time employees view their future?’ This is different for each young full-timer. Some want to develop themselves at this workplace and others want to continue their ‘working life’ elsewhere, based on different ideas. It seems that work aspirations for the future are not very present in the daily lives of young full-time employees.
To answer the main question – How do the everyday work experiences of young full-time employees at a busy train station shape their self-performances in the workplace and their work-aspirations for the future? – it can be concluded that everyday work experiences differ for each group of employees. Yet they all include and influence complaining, handling complaints and dealing with coworkers and customers. Work-aspirations are partly based on the direct experiences of working at Shop X at the busy train station, and partly on earlier experiences in workplaces or school programs. Aspirations are also very different for each individual young full-timer. Each individual has his or her own story that influences their performances at the workplace as well as their aspirations. This means that we cannot make general statements about young full-timers as one ’oppressed’ or ’resistive’ social group.
In the introduction I stated that I believed young people can develop themselves fully through education, and that part of me couldn’t make sense of the fact that some young people choose to work full-time instead of studying. Now, having done this research and having paid close attention to the activities, experiences, and performances of young full-timers, my coworkers, I believe the workplace can also be of great importance for the development of young people, and not only for making money. At the workplace young people are dealing with all sorts of people, customers, coworkers, managers, and a work-system. Just as students are dealing with other students, teachers and education-systems. The work-place can also be seen as a learning environment.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S. & Virk, I. (2012). Contemporary sociological theory. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Loughlin, C., & Barling, J. (2001). Young workers’ work values, attitudes and behaviours. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 74, 543-558.
Mills, M. (2004). Demand for flexibility or generation of insecurity? The individualization of risk, irregular work shifts and Canadian youth. Journal of youth studies, 7(2), 115-139.
Scott, J. (1990). Domination and the arts of resistance: Hidden transcripts. Yale University Press.