I got my first job while I was still in high school, working as a fry cook at McDonald’s. At the age of 18, I was the youngest employee there by three years and well below the average age of the staff, which must have been somewhere around 30. The story was much the same at my next job, a retail position at Staples, where I was younger than most of the other employees by a number of decades.
My personal experience fits into one common cultural mold rather neatly: I’m a student with a part-time job. I’m working minimum wage jobs to support myself while I’m in school, but this is a temporary situation. Eventually I’ll have my degree and I’ll be doing something else. It’s a simple and relatable story. So many adults with successful careers started where I am now. You can see this “type” depicted in movies like Waiting and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But in my experience, my type is the exception, not the norm. Most of my coworkers have been minimum wage “lifers.” When I say lifer, I don’t mean that they’ll be working the exact same job their entire life (which is unlikely given how high turnover rates are for these types of jobs) but rather that they will continue to work food service and retail jobs. For some, minimum wage work is their only option because they didn’t graduate high school, have a criminal record, or are an immigrant who doesn’t speak English very well. Whatever the reason and despite their personal ambitions, they’re stuck where they are.
From the sources I’ve reviewed, this second type, the “lifer,” is the type of minimum wage worker that sees the most representation in popular media. As an example, consider an episode from the show 30 Days by Morgan Spurlock (of Super-Size Me fame) where he spends a month living on minimum wage with his wife. The premise of the show is that someone (often, but not always Spurlock himself) lives an alternate lifestyle for a month, such as a Christian living the life of a practicing Muslim, or in this case a well-off actor living on minimum wage. Spurlock and his wife start with a few hundred dollars and have to find jobs and an apartment. Spurlock ends up finding work at a temp agency while his wife gets a job bussing tables and washing dishes at a café. This experiment more closely mirrors the life of someone working a job just to get by than a student working to help pay for school.
Spurlock puts himself in a situation that is tougher than the one most minimum wage workers face by moving to a new area where he has no friends and getting his own place instead of trying to find roommates. He also plays up certain themes and events to make a point about how difficult it is to live on minimum wage. For example, when his wife sprains her wrist she goes to the emergency room because she has no healthcare and is then stuck with an insurmountably large bill. Spurlock talks at length about how difficult it is to live on minimum wage, and how living pay check to pay check can easily to into a trap.
The theme of minimum wage as a trap is echoed in another nonfiction media source, a PBS news feature about what it’s like to live on minimum wage (the feature is available on Youtube: youtube.com/watch?v=-a0k68ZJEQU). The news feature approaches the same topic from a different angle, interviewing a McDonald’s employee and an airport baggage handler, both of whom work for minimum wage. The interview with the baggage handler does not delve into how the subject found himself in his present situation, but the interview with the McDonald’s employee discusses the subject at length. She explains that she is a single mother of two and a high school dropout with a shoplifting conviction on her criminal record. I don’t think that it would surprise anyone to find out that a fast food worker has a criminal record, or that they dropped out of high school. The McDonald’s employee is stuck. She lives pay check to pay check, held back by the financial burden of raising two children and the professional barrier of having dropped out of high school, not to mention having a criminal record.