In Sam Mendes’ 1999 film, American Beauty, Lester Burnham, played by Kevin Spacey, makes a concerted effort to slide back down the corporate ladder. In the Academy Award-winning performance, Spacey portrays Burnham blackmailing his boss at a magazine job he is about to be fired from, his $60,000 of grift funding a full-scale regression into youth—complete with dream car, plenty of weed, a teenaged crush, and a job serving burgers at Mr. Smiley’s.
Burnham applies for the job on a whim, asking for an application after seeing a hiring announcement at the drive-through window. “There are no jobs for manager—it’s just for counter,” the twentysomething employee tells Spacey’s middle-aged character.
“Good,” Burnham says. “I’m looking for the least possible amount of responsibility.”
In the pre-9/11, pre-Great Recession economy of 1999—when unemployment hit a 30-year low of 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter—there was still some truth to the cultural trope of the summer burger-flipping job: It was a low-skill, low-pay gig, sure, but the rotating cast of high-school kids who stepped up to the counters, fryers and grills could get their first taste of living with a steady income and move up the pay and responsibility scale in their 20s, 30s and beyond. Spacey’s character points out in his interview for the position that he has prior experience in the industry—from 20 years ago.
Today, however, the average fast-food employee is over 29. And a new report form the National Employment Law Project shows that the potential for moving up from entry-level-wage positions is precisely nil.
“Employees of fast-food restaurants are predominately teenagers who work part time, are on the job less than 1 year, and whose earning are closely tied to the minimum wage,” reads a 1994 report on occupational wages in fast food from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Close to 70 percent of workers were younger than 20, and three-quarters of those teens didn’t last at their jobs for more than six months. Working for minimum wage in 1994 or 1999—$5.15 per hour—wasn’t making anyone rich, but Lester Burnham aside, these workers were still living at home—they weren’t parents themselves.
According to the NELP report, “Going Nowhere Fast: Limited Occupational Mobility in the Fast Food Industry,” so-called front-line occupations—the fryers and burger-flippers and counterworkers and delivery drivers—earn a median hourly wage of $8.94 per hour. These workers make up 89.1 percent of the workforce; first-line supervisors account of just 8.7 percent of fast-food jobs, earning an average hourly wage of $13.06. As the title—and the very obvious math—suggests, very few workers are moving up to higher-paying jobs.
In an opinion piece from today’s New York Times, Mark Bittman tackles these gutter numbers—and the growing opposition to the low wages in the industry. Writing about the shift in demographics of fast-food workers, Bittman notes, “One estimate claims that a family of four needs nearly $90,000 a year to get by in the nation’s capital. That’s six minimum-wage jobs.”
A largely teenaged, itinerate workforce was never going to form a union for fast-food employees, but there’s now real momentum for organizing workers following a series of larger and larger strikes in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit and other cities. Striking workers’ demands for a higher base wage could nearly be met with just a one percent price hike on menu items, according to a petition cited by Bittman called “Economists in Support of a $10.50 U.S. Minimum Wage.” He writes, “McDonald’s could recoup half the cost of such an increase simply by hiking the price of a Big Mac from $4 to $4.05.”
Navigating the shiftless ennui of the suburbs—and trying to find meaning in a life that may aesthetically read as “perfect”—is a narrative that has not aged well. In American Beauty, the long shadow of Vietnam (and some Nazi porcelain) is the last remnant of an era when life was weighed with a greater sense of consequence and responsibility. Two years later, that distinctly Yuppie narrative immediately ceased to be relevant as of September 12. And the Great Recession has turned Burnham’s manicured suburban life—and angst—into an anachronism.
There is one element of American Beauty’s plot that rings more true today, however: A middle-aged man supporting a family on fast-food job wages is no longer a rarity.