The disappearing teenage job
Busy high schoolers today are skipping jobs, and not learning skills that steady work teaches
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MISSION VIEJO, Calif.—On a warm midsummer afternoon, dozens of parents arranged their brightly colored umbrellas along the soccer pitch at Capistrano Valley High School (CVHS). Many left work to mark the beginning of a series of “lasts”: their sons’ last soccer season, the last set of school pictures, and all too soon, the last day of high school.
But these parents were worried about more than letting go. Many were also concerned that their teens are not exchanging “lasts” for crucial “firsts”—more specifically, their first job.
In 1987, 57 percent of teenagers ages 16 through 19 spent their summers washing cars, serving ice cream, or lifeguarding at swimming pools. Parents viewed jobs as a rite of passage and a character-building endeavor. For many, the extra money helped pay for college. Fast-forward 30 years: The share of kids working has fallen more than 20 percentage points.
A quick poll of the CVHS varsity soccer team confirmed national trends. Ten of the 24 players said they had secured summer jobs, but two of the kids who raised their hands were stretching the definition of “work”: They had completed referee training but hadn’t officiated any games. That left eight out of 24—close to the 36 percent national average.
One theory behind the vanishing teenage job is laziness, but the team data from last spring showed the opposite: The vast majority are scholar athletes with a grade point average (GPA) of 3.8 or higher. Parent coddling is another theory, but most of the parents I spoke to wanted their teens to work, rattling off a list of benefits—including accountability, perseverance, and self-reliance. They were exasperated by their sons’ failure to land jobs.
So why is the teenage job disappearing?
Economists at the Brookings Institution cite competition from elderly workers remaining in the workforce. Others point to immigrant workers taking jobs teenagers used to take, and still others say high minimum wage laws are eliminating entry-level work.
A tight job market means finding a job today often requires grit from the teen and both coaching and persistence from parents.
Kim Harvey has 16-year-old twins who play for the San Clemente High School soccer team; one found a summer job, the other one didn’t. Harvey said her son’s job quest lacked diligence, so she and her husband took away his Xbox and told him it was time to begin paying for some of his expenses.
April Allen also has 16-year-old twin boys. She confiscated all of her sons’ electronic devices—including cell phones—until they found jobs. “They don’t believe us that you have to fill out several applications and do several interviews. They don’t think we know anything.”
Marcia and Wally Nelson are parents of the third set of twins I encountered at the soccer game. When their boys—high-school seniors at CVHS—became injured and quit club soccer, the Nelsons told them it was time to get a job. “Too much time on their hands is not good,” Marcia Nelson said. The Nelsons began with some coaching: Visit local businesses, follow their instructions to apply online, then make follow-up calls and request an interview.
One of their sons got a job at a local movie theater, but the other one struggled. “He was obstinate, and just did not want to call. He said, ‘If they want me, they’ll call me,’” Wally Nelson explained, noting his boys’ “cringe-worthy” phone skills and the necessity of talking them through each conversation.
His son Lukas eventually made some calls and got a lead at a local fast-food restaurant. The manager asked if he could alter his hours of availability, so he changed his application. This is when the real battle of wills began between father and son: Nelson insisted on a follow-up call, but Lukas was sure that one call was enough. He eventually agreed to call again and reported the results to his parents. But his mom was suspicious.
“My wife said he didn’t call. This is right in front of us. I check his phone, and he didn’t dial at all,” Wally Nelson said with a chuckle. “He was scared. Just plain scared.”
The parents persisted, verified that Lukas was on the phone with a real person, and listened as a manager granted their son an interview. Eventually, he got the job. The boys are now paying for their own gas, competing to see who saves the most money, and planning for a trip together after graduation. They enjoy their jobs and are working on the weekends during the school year. The nagging, these parents said, was worth it.
BUT NOT ALL TEENAGERS are looking for jobs. Many of the soccer players told me they were too busy with club sports, vacations, camps, church activities, and the hysteria surrounding college acceptance. According to team data from April, at least 13 of the CVHS summer varsity soccer players had above a 4.0 GPA for excelling in advanced placement classes, and one incoming senior took an architecture class over the summer at a community college. At least six were enrolled in SAT boot camps or tutoring, and many of the seniors were finishing up their recommended 40 hours of volunteer work.
Are teens missing out on the character-boosting benefits of work when they spend all their time creating flashy college applications? Karen Lee, a college prep adviser at College Conquest, thinks so. “When it comes to really humbling them and having different layers in their personality, I think work speaks to a different experience. You’re being paid for this, and you have that expected responsibility put on you by the employer. So you have to do the things they are asking.”
She says the application process alone is “phenomenal” for helping them grow up.
Still, some parents encourage their teens to prioritize acceptance to an elite institution—including state universities with a reputable education and affordable tuition—and competition for those spots is fierce. The average incoming freshman GPA at the University of California in San Diego is 4.1, and only 34 percent of applicants are admitted. Other prestigious universities across the nation are even more selective, generating a frantic marketplace of college admissions.
So I asked Lee the following question: If three students with equal grades and SAT scores apply to competitive universities, but one has worked, another traveled to third-world countries, and a third created an outreach to the homeless, who has the best chance of acceptance? “I don’t think one experience outdoes the other. What they want to see is character development, but they want to see that in terms of the application and the essay and how you develop it, more so than what you achieved.”
She pointed to a subtle shift in admissions last year after Harvard produced “Turning the Tide”—a document signed by more than 80 schools and organizations stating they would no longer look for overachievers. “I don’t know if I believe that,” Lee said, “but something has changed.”
Some of her students wrote in their college applications about shaping moments on the job, and their essays turned out well, Lee said. And applicants can showcase employment in other ways: The Common Application—which students can send to any of the 731 member colleges and universities—allows the applicant to list work as an activity. Some of the state university applications want to know if you worked and where you spent your money.
Lee meets with some of the students she counsels on a weekly basis beginning in middle school, and many of those parents want—and even expect—Ivy League results. But Lee has greater goals for her students than acceptance at elite universities, and that sometimes puts her at odds with parents. She wants her students—many of whom come from affluent families in Irvine, Calif.—ready for the real-world challenges they will face in college and beyond. Work, she says, is one of the best ways to prepare them for life.
This echoes advice from U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., in his book The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming of Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance: “We should be figuring out how to help build them a menu of really hard tasks to tackle.” The goal, Sasse writes, is “not to make life hard but to give them a realistic sense of what life is like outside the nest.”
Sasse sent his 14-year-old daughter to work on a ranch for a summer and tweeted about her “hard tasks”—including coiling barbed wire and castrating bull calves. This may not be realistic work for most teens, but Lee encourages all of her students to find jobs, especially those from affluent families.
She shared the story of two sisters who never lifted a finger around the home. Working in an ice cream shop helped prepare them for life without mom waiting on them. Another one of her students had a privileged childhood in a wealthy family. His job at a fast-food restaurant opened his eyes to the struggles of other classes when he met and befriended employees supporting families with their paychecks.
Lee pointed out other valuable lessons her students learned through employment: tackling tasks that aren’t fun, problem-solving when new situations arise, and dealing with disgruntled customers.
Work also prepared them for adversity. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the “persistence rate is falling fast” among college students, with as many as 1 in 3 freshmen not returning to any school for their sophomore year. It may be time for parents to beef up that menu of “really hard tasks” during the teenage years, and finding a job could be a good start.
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