Fewer Teens Have Jobs These Days: Why That’s Often Unwise
Parents’ retirement savings suffer and, without a work history, young people arrive at careers unprepared to contribute
Teenagers hard at work getting through high school and – for many – hard at work getting into college are taking a pass on actually working.
As the chart below shows, there has been a big generational shift in teens holding down a job. At the peak in the late ’70s, nearly 60% of teens between the ages of 16 and 19 held down a paying job that showed up in government data (likely not inclusive of all-cash babysitting gigs and the like). Today it’s hovering around 35%.
A recent research report from the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project parsed teen work data during the academic year vs. the summer. The researchers found that from 2000 to 2018 there was an 11 percentage point drop – to about 40% – in the percentage of teens who work during the academic year.
This isn’t about kids being lazy. High school students are often overscheduled with demanding course loads that often include tutoring sessions. With what time is left, among the college-ambitious there’s the race to collect extracurricular activities that will shine on college applications. Summer hours available for work are fewer, too. The researchers point out that the percentage of teens enrolled in summer school has risen nearly 17 percentage points.
College admission gatekeepers aren’t objecting. If teen work experience was valued, we wouldn’t see these declines in teens working at paying jobs.
But there are consequences of the no-work teen. A teen job provides a low-risk place to earn an education in workplace expectations and dynamics, including the dark art of navigating difficult colleagues and managers.
A recent survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests that young adults could use more time in the minor leagues to work on these skills before graduating into the career big leagues. Just four in 10 employers rated college grads proficient in their work ethic and professionalism. That was seemingly big news to the grads: Nearly nine in 10 graded themselves proficient in those key workplace traits.
Moreover, having a teen earn money has all sorts of upsides. Every dollar a college student contributes is a dollar less of pressure on parents grappling with how to simultaneously pay for college and save for retirement.
A paying job also provides a fertile petri dish for teens to learn the value of a dollar and the impact of taxes. A teen who’s woke to the money stuff through work may be more appreciative of keeping college borrowing in check. None of those crucial lessons is typically taught in high school. Good money sense is often a result of learning through experience. The earlier the start, the better.
For kids heading to college, having even a small bit of skin in the game can be a motivation to graduate on time.
High school is hard work. But weaving in even a small commitment to working can deliver a big payoff: a young adult launching into the real world with important money skills and perspective.