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Good Job!

Prepping the workers of tomorrow for the daily grind

On a Wednesday morning in San Diego, the CEO of the UPS Store was sitting at his desk in a baby blue polo, waiting for the customers to arrive. “I’ll be signing paychecks and stuff, and giving them to my employees,” he told me. The CEO, who is the youngest of three and would one day like to be a professional soccer player, is in the fifth grade. His mother had pressed his name in iron-on letters on one side of his shirt; on the other side was the delivery company’s brown logo. When he’s an adult, he would like to get a small tattoo of a cross.

As children, we are constantly told about a “real world” that awaits us—a difficult, gleaming futurity for which our entire lives have only been a rehearsal. But on this day, the CEO and I were at BizTown: a miniature city replete with miniature businesses staffed by miniature merchants, the market society writ small. Here, children are told they will finally get to experience the vaunted real world in all its mystery. Their primary mode of participation will be work.

“It’s kind of easy,” the CEO said about managing his employees, holding his hand to the back of his head in a relaxed posture, a lanyard yoked around his small neck. His blonde hair, clean-cut, was slicked neatly to one side. Beyond the UPS Store, the town was starting to come to life.

In the next four hours, I would see children stare into the abyss of their inboxes as pop music scrubbed of swear words blasted from tinny loudspeakers. I would hear child customer service representatives systematically ask, clipboard in hand, “Is your Wi-Fi working?” and watch government paper pushers bored at their desks. I would hear a child in a bank line sing out, “I got a debit card, and it’s platinum!” I would be told, repeatedly, that the worst thing in life is taxes. I would hear playground screams from every corner of the town, a wild chorus of commerce, imagination, opportunity, and debt.

I asked the CEO what he liked about his job. “Community,” he said, smiling beatifically. From now on, when he sees a UPS truck, he will say, “Oh look, they work for me.” When he got paid, he was going to buy a small bag of popcorn from Jack in the Box. His friend, he admitted, had already snuck him a little piece.

Risky Bizness

While driving to BizTown that morning, curving down mountain roads, I passed an encampment—wheelchair, American flag, the crumpled nylon of a tent—which eventually gave way to a succession of blank-faced office buildings nestled in the shadow of the freeway. I parked at the bottom of a hill, in the visitor lot of a church, and walked up the short distance to the flat white portal of the Junior Achievement (JA) building where BizTown is housed, its front a grid of mirrored glass.

Here, children are told they will finally get to experience the vaunted real world in
all its mystery. Their primary mode of participation will be work.

The McGrath Family JA BizTown in San Diego is a ten-thousand-square-foot model village, the constituent parts of city life distilled to a stage set of gleaming storefronts, spread over two floors. Each of the twenty-one businesses represented, reflecting the city’s actual economy, are built out and paid for by companies for the price of $25,000 per year, with a minimum three-year contract.

At the Mission Federal Credit Union and U.S. Bank, children deposit their first paycheck of the day. At The Super Dentists and Kaiser Permanente, kids arrive with health care vouchers paid by their employers, complaining of grown-up maladies like carpal tunnel and back pain. Throughout the day, tiny televisions beam news delivered by an NBC 7 anchor from a glass-walled chamber as songs blast over the intercom from the Channel 933 disc jockey. Companies like Hawthorne CAT, Epsilon, and the UPS Store, headquartered in San Diego, provide BizTown with contracting, websites, and package delivery. One of the most recent additions is the multimillion-dollar biotech company Illumina, which helped sequence the genetic code of the Covid-19 virus; at its outpost, tiny field scientists in lab coats model strands of DNA with pieces of candy.

Before the school buses arrived on the morning of my visit, a group of parent-volunteers was herded into a conference room for initiation into the elaborate apparatus that is BizTown. “Are you all doing great?” our guide A.J. asked. “I want you to say great. Even if you’re not doing great, you all are now.” He started working the floor six years ago, fresh out of high school, and gave an hour-long spiel laced with jokes. The experience is designed for the volunteers to learn as well, and one parent told me she picked up knowledge at BizTown that she later used in her job. Parents had already been assigned the businesses they would monitor that day: SDG&E, Cox Communications, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The volunteer relegated to the San Diego Downtown Breakfast Rotary seemed disappointed, and so, too, would some of the children upon finding that the club had little to do with breakfast and involved only lonely begging for charitable donations, to which their peers often answered “insufficient funds.”

Before the doors opened, the parents retreated to their businesses. “This is the quietest you’re ever going to hear this place,” A.J. told us. The adults, wearing blue JA aprons, huddled in the doorways of their shops, the air already thick with the smell of popcorn. They had been briefed on the computer systems, accounts payable and receivable, the responsibilities of the miniature CEOs, and the town’s sequence of alternating breaks, signaled by a giant traffic light installed in the center of the building. The scene had a hushed anticipation, the taut energy of a stage before the curtain parts. “I want it to be like a Disneyland experience for them,” A.J. told me later. There was a quiet pause, then a muted roar. The horde, a hundred or so future citizens of BizTown and the world, clamored from behind the closed doors.

Kidizens United

In 1980, the first miniature child town was built in a crumbling warehouse owned by Hallmark in Kansas City, Kansas. With a $100,000 grant from the greeting card empire, the town was created by The Learning Exchange, a nonprofit whose mission was to bring the newest advances in education to local schools. Experiential learning, though popularized by John Dewey in the early twentieth century, had not yet been widely adopted, but research had shown that hands-on activities were far more effective than a classroom worksheet.

Your life, children learn, will be shaped by this indestructible math: work yielding to pleasure and pleasure yielding to work in one eternal loop.

The concept fell into place once The Learning Exchange hit on the idea of the bank loan. The goal for the students would be to avoid bankruptcy. Within the model town, creativity was encouraged: students could set their own prices for the goods they sold and find inventive ways to compete with one another to pay off their debts. They called it Exchange City. And though The Learning Exchange developed other programs, it was Exchange City that most attracted the interest, and funding, of the local business community.

The idea was not entirely new. In the late 1960s, a novice teacher and poet named George Richmond had upended a Brooklyn classroom by asking his fifth-grade students, “How many of you are poor?” Comparing his students to unpropertied feudal peasants—not because they were on public assistance, which they were, but because he felt the classroom itself was a form of disempowerment—Richmond found that giving students jobs, real social roles that were remunerated in Monopoly money, galvanized their interest in learning. He acknowledged “a certain squeamishness” about “the wisdom of introducing money, private property, and private sector ventures into the classroom,” but ultimately the students were free to decide what kind of society to produce, from constitutional monarchies to socialist states. Money wasn’t essential to the program’s success, he wrote, “but it could certainly help.” His idea of the “MicroSociety school” curriculum was subsequently adopted by hundreds of schools.

A little over a decade later, as President Reagan privatized public services and deregulated industry, singing the hymn of self-sufficiency, other financial games for children also appeared on the market. In the new competitive global economy, it was feared that the public education system was declining, the country’s dominance waning. “Economics was in the zeitgeist,” The Learning Exchange’s president, Connie Campbell, told me. While their parents vacationed, children could play “Money Management Mania,” a finance-themed gameshow at Dollars and Sense, a camp held in different resort towns. Or they could buy pretend stock at the Young Americans Success Camp in Salt Lake City; run by Howard Ruff, the author of the 1978 bestseller How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years, the camp issued such team-building challenges as escaping a make-believe prison.

When he took a tour of Exchange City in 1982, the head of Reagan’s newly created task force for private sector initiatives called it “a magnificent kind of example,” saying that the president himself would visit during his next trip to Kansas City. (Over time, Exchange City became a popular stop for visiting politicians, in part because its ersatz governmental sanctums provided the perfect backdrop for photo ops.) To support its operations, Campbell gave thousands of tours of Exchange City to potential funders. “Bankers, as you can imagine, were really enthralled with the model,” she said, “because the bank is the center, the heartbeat of the concept.” At the tour’s conclusion, businesspeople would be moved to tears. “It was repeated to us over and over and over,” she said, “‘you are teaching my values.’”

By the turn of the millennium, manufactured child societies had departed from the purely pedagogical and were repackaged as entertainment. While children had once been considered ideal employees because they were cheap and less prone to strike, their labor was now the basis of absurdist play—the gag being that creatures exempt from the perversity of productive society might be somehow subjected to it, like outfitting dogs in tiny tuxedos. In 2004, a theme park opened in Sunrise, Florida, called Wannado City, where “kidizens” could spend an imaginary form of currency known as “wongas.” The reality television show Kid Nation debuted in 2007, in which children were exported to a Western ghost town, and, in a Lord of the Flies-style lesson in self-governance, made to execute the grueling tasks of frontier survival.

It was also in the early 2000s that the idea for Exchange City—rechristened BizTown—was sold to Junior Achievement, an organization that had been founded in 1919 to teach immigrant, rural, and working-class children about the means of production; it was described to me as “4H for business.” JA had been started by the founders of AT&T, the Strathmore Paper Company, and a Republican senator whose family holds the monopoly on supplying paper to the U.S. Mint. From the beginning, it was promoted as a healthy alternative to gangs and the communist youth clubs forming at the time, according to the historian Edwin Gabler. In 1930, members would pledge:

Work shall be my greatest source of pleasure.
I shall live with it,
Cultivate its friendship,
Study its rebellious traits,
Shape myself to fit it,
Love it as my playmate.

Throughout the ups and downs of the Great Depression and the New Deal, the postwar boom and the Cold War, JA remained steadfast in its promotion of the values of big business. Its first program was the JA Company Program, where high schoolers developed business ventures after school. “Whether directed at youngsters or the community in general, the JA message could be couched in the broadest terms, invoking a consensual America in which Business was as august and hallowed an institution as Democracy, Liberty, or the People,” Gabler writes. Its teachings were not strictly vocational; rather, JA introduced “the shared corporate values of rationalization of mass production, bureaucratic control of the work force, and, of course, private ownership and control of wealth and income.” As one journalist put it in a 1953 issue of Better Homes & Gardens: “They learn the value of teamwork, of specialization. How to sell themselves as well as a product.”

Many decades later, JA’s ethos remains mostly unchanged—as does the plain fact that people’s labor and time are traded for an abstraction called money, which is then exchanged for things like the popcorn that is everywhere in BizTown. Your life, children learn, will be shaped by this indestructible math: work yielding to pleasure and pleasure yielding to work in one eternal loop. As the director of one model city told a local paper, “This is what life is really about.”

Dreams That Money Can Buy

I am intimately familiar with the workings of BizTown because, as a child, I went to something called Enterprise Village, founded in 1989 by a local entrepreneur in a part of Florida where learning about free enterprise was a mandated part of the county curriculum. “It felt like this touchstone moment for everyone in our local community,” a friend of mine recalled, “Every fifth grader went through it. Your education was leading up to your Enterprise Village day.”

“Obey the rules and laws of Jah BizTown.”

In the weeks preceding the field trip, we practiced categorizing our desires as “wants” or “needs.” In the classroom, we’d unfold newspapers, spread out the business section, and examine the columns of stock tables: tight, puzzling bundles of ticker symbols that, once decoded, unlocked the deep pleasures of familiar brands. We bought pretend stocks and were told that the bigger companies, the brands well-known to us, would be less likely to flounder. Disney (DIS) was good! Coca-Cola (KO) was good! Then, in small groups, we were given a budget and told to plan a vacation, plotting out expenses like lodging and gas. My friends and I chose to go to the Hard Rock Hotel in Daytona Beach. At that point, I had been neither to Daytona Beach nor stayed in a hotel, much less the Hard Rock. If my family traveled, we camped. I would wishfully slip brochures for the Econo Lodge in my mom’s suitcase. What the Enterprise Village exercise revealed to me was not the importance of a budget, in all its drab accounting, but the magic of money.

At the end of the curriculum, the big reveal was the announcement of our jobs. I had wanted, like many of my classmates, to be the host of the Home Shopping Network. A handful of star roles—on-air personality, police officer, mayor—were awarded to children with outsize personalities, uncommon warmth, or exceptional math skills. The rest of us found ourselves shuffled into bland jobs with dressed-up names like Guest Service Specialist. I was abysmal at math, yet I sat behind a counter to accept deposits as part of an undistinguishable mass of tellers at Barnett Bank, which would eventually become part of Bank of America. A tiny green placard, vaguely threatening, read, “Nobody wants your company’s business more than Barnett. Nobody.” I remember little about this job except that it was not the one I wanted—which was preparation of its own kind. In a wilted blouse, I practiced signing my name on checks in the small, fake office.

While I struggle as an adult to do my taxes, and still am not entirely sure how a mortgage works or how to buy stock, I did learn at Enterprise Village that spending money was a thrilling exercise in autonomy. “You have such fantasies about what it means to control your own life,” another friend of mine remembered. “If I get a paycheck, then I can make all the decisions.” For once, we didn’t all have to eat lunch at the same time under the watchful eye of teachers. And during our breaks, we could do whatever we wanted: buy a flamingo shirt from the Home Shopping Network or eat chicken nuggets alone at McDonald’s. That this miniature world was premised on debt—the imaginary loan that the simulation charged us with paying back—barely registered when it was brimming with things to buy, small talismans of freedom we would keep for a long time after.

Years later, wandering around BizTown, I wondered what else I had learned. Despite my early economic education, I went on to major in art history, then entered one unlucrative humanistic field after another, each allegedly on the verge of total extinction. (On one page of the BizTown “Citizen Guide” workbook, under the heading “Education Pays Off,” students can color in a graph comparing the average earnings per hour of STEM employees vs. non-STEM employees.) Entering the workforce during the spectacular collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, I had spent my life jockeying for slim resources in the hope of forming some bulwark against uncertainty. As I grew older, the world only became more expensive and the technologies of exchange more ornate. What was once merely money—straightforwardly earned and spent—had morphed into an even greater abstraction called finance, a byzantine world of intangible operations with its own impenetrable jargon.

The aim of JA is to negate some of this opacity. A little under half of adults are financially illiterate, so BizTown offers an early introduction to concepts like loans, taxes, applications, and paychecks. In a perfect world, Siddhartha Vivek, the CEO of the San Diego branch of Junior Achievement, told me, JA would put themselves out of business because everyone would already know how mortgages, auto loans, and health insurance work. Through the simulation, Vivek says, kids learn about self-confidence, critical thinking, and teamwork. They make sales and run payroll, and, in the process, learn the meaning of a career.

Vivek was careful to stress that JA is not only about personal financial literacy but community economic development. He argued that financial education could help close the racial wealth gap and redefine the parameters of the possible. Studies have shown that children start making decisions about their future careers by age eleven; how those futures are made is largely shaped by what they have seen. In one classroom he’d visited, Vivek said, a Black student had confided that he thought only white people were lawyers. After a long history of unfair policies like redlining or racial covenants that barred many from the American Dream, Vivek wanted to give all children the same tools to compete. “When I think of an inclusive economy, it is one in which we are intentionally saying, ‘Who is not at the table?’” he said. If one child can access wealth, then they can pour money back into their local businesses, which improves the tax base, which can fix roads and raise property values, which can then build generational wealth, and soon wealth will be distributed throughout an entire community.

When I talked to David Stern, a professor emeritus at Berkeley who studied the relationship between education and work for decades, he was more circumspect about the value of BizTown—and skeptical of the lessons it imparts. “I’m leery of corporate sponsorship,” he said, and “how much the free enterprise political agenda shapes the experience of students.” Among BizTown’s largest sponsors are mutual funds, banks, financial services companies, and libertarian philanthropic organizations like the Charles Koch Foundation. One of the critiques of corporate presence in education is that schools should remain apart from a pervasive consumer culture that tells children, as one study put it, “they can derive identity, fulfillment, self-expression, and confidence through what they buy.” In Stern’s view, the outsize influence of corporations has created an economy where consumers, deceived and manipulated by ubiquitous advertising, their data bought and sold to manufacture desires, are powerless. “What they mean by the free enterprise system is not conforming to the conditions of competitive markets,” said Stern, “What free enterprise means is letting businesses do whatever the hell they want. And don’t give us health and safety regulations and don’t give us collective bargaining regulations. And don’t give us bribery regulations, and don’t give us any regulations at all.” It’s true that the BizTown “Citizen Guide” workbook does not include mention of collective bargaining, labor laws, or profit-sharing cooperatives.

In the 1990s, Stern and his colleagues conducted a comprehensive survey of different kinds of work-based learning programs, making a distinction between simulations and programs where students learned a real trade or skill: “Are they really producing something for clients and customers outside the classroom, or is it just make-believe?” He was dubious of programs that only taught children “the business of business,” focusing on the marketing of knickknacks rather than the quality of the product or service being offered. “If you want to do more than sell your time for money, and have work that does have some intrinsic meaning, you will come up to the question of quality quite quickly,” he told me. It wasn’t that something like BizTown couldn’t be a good educational experience, but he wondered what the children learned about what work was. Because work without deep purpose, without a sense of quality or meaning, was simply shilling. At the end of the day, how do the kids know if they’ve done a good job?

Town, Gown, and Clown

Like Enterprise Village, BizTown is the pinnacle of a month-long financial education curriculum developed by Junior Achievement. Before arriving, the San Diegan fifth graders had already interviewed for their jobs, the positions advertised in classifieds made by their teacher. Every company has several employees, with a top-paid CEO in command of each. (At one point, some children protested that they made less than minimum wage, so A.J., the BizTown guide, increased their salaries.)

At the end of the day, how do the kids know if they’ve done a good job?

In the center of the city, corporate storefronts are arranged tidily around the Town Square. As part of the day’s opening ceremony, a steady procession of anointed CEOs had ascended before a flag-flanked podium, reciting fill-in-the-blank speeches provided by the sponsors. Behind the podium is the County & City Administration office, anchored by the twin desks of the mayor and judge, where tiny photographs of San Diego’s civic leaders line the wall like a row of folk icons. At the end of the morning ceremony, the town’s judge had recited the rules of BizTown, which the fifth graders dutifully echoed. They pledged to respect all citizens, tell the truth, work and take breaks at assigned times, vote, and pay taxes. “Obey the rules and laws of Jah BizTown,” the judge said in a small voice, pronouncing JA phonetically. “Obey the rules and laws of Jah BizTown,” all the citizens chanted back.

Later, the judge would wander into Jack in the Box, which was packed and running out of popcorn—an object lesson in scarcity. “Sign this,” the judge said, holding a certificate reading Promotion Award. The CEO didn’t know who should receive the promotion. The name of one team member was floated. “Is he always on task?” the judge asked patiently in his miniature robes.

But the Jack in the Box CEO was taking his time. When asked who he thought deserved the promotion, he hedged that he was still deciding. He was looking for someone polite who worked hard. He seemed to be a gentle boss, and if anyone at Jack in the Box objected to the fact that they made one to two dollars less than their CEO, I saw no mutiny. (The students understood, their teacher told me later, that some were paid more to supervise others.) Looming across from us was a large photograph of Jack in the Box’s mascot, a clown-faced executive who appears most frequently in a business suit, but in this instance was inexplicably working a treadmill in track pants. With the popcorn supply diminishing, Jack in the Box had begun dispensing tiny, disembodied clown heads sealed in cellophane, fished out of yellow Best Buy baskets distributed by UPS. “Everybody wants to buy them,” the CEO said with a note of wonder, “They are so soft.”

A chaperone confided that this was a good group, better than the one she had been assigned previously, an ordeal from which it took three days to fully recover. To volunteer at BizTown is to gently cede one’s adult supremacy while still, like a subtle god, massaging the action from above. The chaperone reminded her daughter to eat lunch. “I can’t eat when I’m working,” the girl said. With the popcorn gone, the stock reduced to just a few sad kernels in the warm Coca-Cola-branded freezer, there was less to do. Soon, a small fight broke out among the employees vying for the cashier’s spot. The chaperone attempted to intervene. “We had a meeting: no stealing jobs!” her daughter cried.

I caught the judge sitting at one of the restaurant’s slick tables. “So, you’ve been running around today?” I asked. Beneath the robes, he was wearing a pale blue dress shirt and striped tie, for which he would later be named “best dressed” by BizTown’s HR representative. “We’re not allowed to run,” he corrected me. “Walking.” Nearby, edged against the glowing square of the popcorn machine, the CFO of Jack in the Box sat in front of a computer. A quiet, round-faced boy, he was wearing a black T-shirt printed all over with the word hustle in swollen letters. With his next paycheck, he wanted to adopt one of the stuffed animals from the veterinarian’s clinic. At home, he told me, he once had a dog named Gordita, but it died, and now he cared for the cat in his apartment. When he’s an adult, he said sweetly, he’s most looking forward to having children, a boy and a girl. Sweat pooled at his temple. After our conversation, he pressed a few keys on the computer, and the printer slowly chugged out a paycheck. The CFO cut it out with a pair of green scissors and signed it with a pencil.

When the announcement finally piped over the loudspeaker that BizTown was closing, the workers were corralled in their shops and forced to endure cleanup. Their professional statuses sloughed, they reassembled in a plebian mass on the plastic floor. They had exchanged their time for paychecks. They had worked together and then, by intervals, been freed from that work. To fill the space of their freedom, they had bought things. At the end of the day, it was announced which companies in BizTown had paid off their debt, which had used the least energy, and who had recycled the most. The attorney declared the verdict of their case, and the scientist released the results of their experiment. With BizTown dollars dissipating into the ether, the worn adults came together to enclose the children in a soft ring.

For many who visited this capitalist city in their youth, the bright brand of experience still burns in their hearts and minds. BizTown is a topic of group chats, private Facebook groups, and fevered Reddit threads awash with reminiscences from ex-children. Decades later, they will tell you that they worked as the manager of the jewelry store, or chased down their classmates to collect fines, or played Milli Vanilli nonstop at the radio station. They will tell you they pulled a bank heist to buy bracelets, or what it felt like to realize, in BizTown’s warehouse, that they could charge whatever prices they wished. They will tell you they were the lawyer and spent most of the day “schmoozing” with the mayor, acting above the rules—“welcome to RL I guess.” They will tell you that when they were the mayor, it was “the last time I held unbridled power over anything.” They will tell you they won the role of judge after running a smear campaign in which the other candidates were labeled communists. They will tell you the definition of an “opportunity cost,” that the balloon they bought lasted forever, that their time at the bank was “what started my journey of hating work.” They will tell you they bounced all their checks, skipped their breaks, and ended the day triumphant or in tears. They will tell you it was the culmination of their childhood, a shining moment, a rite of passage. Since 1980, millions of students, tiny human resources, have flowed through the model city, absorbing its teachings in their own way.

The doors to the McGrath Family JA BizTown were unlocked. The children poured out the front entrance, making exclamatory noises about the brightness of the sun, the natural light. Having experienced the real world, they were once again reprieved from it, filing down the hillside and into the golden canyon below.