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What You Learn from Working Minimum-Wage Jobs

​I've been working low-paying jobs for a long, long time. Here's what I've learned.

by Laurence Rivers
Dec 8 2014, 12:30pm

Illustrations by  ​Tom Scot​cher

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

​I've been working minimum-wage jobs for a long, long time.

I've stacked shelves,  ​answered telephones, dressed up as a Georgian aristocrat, poured pints, filed, scanned, and filed again. I've screamed at paying strangers in a haunted house, mopped up a little bit of shit, quite a lot of piss, and endless human sick.

When I inevitably end up jobless, I have the luxury of being able to delve into this Filofax of personal tragedy, pick one of the base-pay professions off my CV (turns out haunted-house managers are way more into experience than a 2:1 in business management), and have another crack at it. It's not perfect—in fact, it's terrible and soul-destroying, and I hate it—but it has taught me some valuable lessons.

In the interest of being paid for writing instead of scrubbing a urinal, I thought I'd share some of those with you here.

LEARN TO DIVIDE BY 20
Ever since they upped the national minimum wage to an even amount, it's made the arithmetic of life a lot easier to calculate: $10 divided by the hour's endless 60 minutes gives you 16 cents, which I like to round up to 20, just as a little treat. That is my value here on Earth: 20 cents a minute.

Justin Timberlake is the voice of my generation in so many ways, but it has to be his 2011 film In Time that speaks to me most. As a minimum-wage worker, much like the characters in the film, you start to pay for things with your time. Lightbulbs, tax, kidney beans—everything you need to continue existing.

A tube ticket, for example, is $4.40. Divide that by 20 and you'll realize it's cost you 22 minutes of life to stand underground, sweating, while a man jabs you in the mouth with his elbow. Then you're at work, and then you have get back home the same sweaty, jabby way you came.

Overall, that's 50 minutes of my life currency spent on getting to and from somewhere I don't want to go. Only, I prefer to view it as working my first hour for free, because if you start on a low, at least there's always the incredibly slim chance that things will get marginally better.

REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION
This is the key to learning. Problematically, it's also the key to ignorance; the more something's done, no matter how absurd and pointless and time-consuming, the more it becomes a part of your daily normality. Minimum wage—especially within the catering industry—is full of this shit.

People leave exactly thousands of uneaten carrots on their plates in any given restaurant. It is my job to peel these carrots. It is also my job to throw them in the bin when the plate returns.

It is my job to shine those unsightly little smears of limescale off every glass in the building. Unfortunately, the London tap water I'm using to do this is swimming with limescale, meaning all I'm really doing is running great streaks of scum across everything I touch. It's like cleaning paint with paint.

To get a glass to a tolerable state of smudging takes a minimum of three minutes. This has to be done for every glass in the building. There are more than 400 glasses. Mathematically, this represents about 20 hours of continuous work. My shift is only 13 hours long. Every day, the manager tells me to finish before I leave, a task that is literally impossible.

YOU'LL COME TO APPRECIATE THE MINUTIAE OF LIFE
Who do you think put your sandwich in that triangular box? Me. You're welcome.

YOUR WORK FRIENDS WILL TURN INTO DICKS WHEN THEY START GETTING PAID MORE
There's a real lack of pretension at the bottom of the working heap. This is because, when you're being paid $10 an hour to pull sinew and bones out of dead poultry, you don't really give a fuck about your job.

The problems come when they start moving you higher up the ladder. The dictionary has words for these problems: junior manager, regional supervisor, and—worst of all—team leader. Overnight, the person you once knew as a friend, the guy you snuck out with mid-shift to smoke a joint, suddenly really, really cares about glassware. When you go to the pub after work, he talks about work. If you run into them at a party, he talks about goals and punctuality.

Essentially, quite a lot of your cool new work friends will eventually get pay rises and turn into full-blown boring cunts. So don't get too attached.

BUT YOU'LL MEET SOME BEAUTIFUL WEIRDOS
On the other hand, some of the people I work with couldn't be more interesting. A former pianist for the Bolshoi ballet washes the toilets at a private lawyers' club; the ex-Mauritius goalkeeper makes tea for weddings; a famous punk musician answers the phones in an office.

Granted, most of my minimum-wage work has been in London—the kind of place Russian ballet dancers tend to flock to when their toes turn to shit and nobody wants to pay to see them move around on stage anymore—so I don't really know what caliber of co-worker you'd find elsewhere. However, I'd wager they're going to be a lot more fun to hang out with than some insurance lifer or recruitment journeyman.

HUMANS CAN BE THE ABSOLUTE WORST
Standing at the bottom and looking up, you see humankind at all kinds of strange new angles. The best days are those where you're barely noticed by customers; the worst are where you have actively interact with them.

Take the Christmas period, for example: a time of good tidings for all men, unless you're a supermarket shelf-stacker who's run out of brandy butter. In that case, it is not good tidings for you. It is horrible tidings for you, because you're on the verge of ruining everybody's special day, and everybody wants to make that very clear to you with their fingers and their loud, angry words.

IF ALCOHOL'S INVOLVED, GO IN PRIMED
Alcohol only exacerbates the problem that is people. Case in point: While working at a nightclub for someone's birthday party, a lady approached the bar, trying to catch my eye but mostly blinking a lot and staring at my chin. She screamed, "Vodka and coke!" at me. I obliged. She gave me a wrinkled bill, which I handed back to her, explaining that it was a free bar for the night.

She eyed me up with a very aggressive pair of bloodshot eyeballs. "You know what you are?" she sneered. "You're a fucking prick."

QUITTING IS TEMPORARY
I walk out of these jobs quite blithely. Everybody does. Quitting is easy and fun. Trust me, the joy you experience as you drop your tray or wad of files and stroll toward the door—the regional supervisor bleating after you—feels eternal.

Unfortunately, it's not. In reality, it only lasts a couple of hours, if that. The packed train home alerts your suspicions to the fact that you do actually need to work a job if you want to keep putting sustenance into your face. 

You can always follow your dreams and have a go at being a painter or a session cellist, or something. But fundamentally, there just isn't enough time for this. So you return to Monster or Craigslist or Jobsite and go back to where you started.