Learning How to Work

Kids these days don’t know how to work. That concerns me a lot more than it does most other parents.

When I was nine, I started working at my dad’s store, a pharmacy and home medical supply retailer. I made 25 cents an hour at first, which, even then, was wayyy less than the minimum wage of $1.60. (Yes, my dad broke the minimum wage law – more on that later…)

I cleaned shelves. And floors. And toilets.

At the time, that’s about the only thing I was useful for. I learned a lot, though. Over time, I came to do every job there other than pharmacist, but what I learned most was how to work at a job. I learned how to show up every day, do what I was assigned to do, improvise when my instructions weren’t enough, and even to take the initiative to do new tasks that I recognized were needed.

As I learned more and took on more responsibility, my dad paid me more. Yes, he was my dad, but I do believe he was compensating me for my increasing economic value. So, as my pay increased, I noticed the money I was earning more, and I began learning about how to manage my money. I saved at a local bank and watched my balance as I earned interest (yes, banks paid interest back in those days…). I spent my own money, so I learned how to make consumer decisions and how to live within a budget.

I’m sad to say that very, very few tweens and teens growing up these days have the opportunity to learn these lessons. Paying work for children younger than high school age is practically unheard of, and the teen unemployment rate (ages 16-19, both full and part time) is at a very high level historically, about 25%.

That rate is far from the whole story, though. Probably the most eye-opening statistic is that the teen labor participation rate – i.e. the percentage of teens who say they want to work part- or full-time, whether they have a job or not – is 34%. That’s way down from the 50% to 60% range this number stayed in from 1969, when it was first tracked, until 2000. Since then, this number has dropped steadily and quickly to where it is today.

If we combine the teen unemployment and teen labor participation rates together, we find that a historically low 25% of teens is working.

In sum, far fewer teens are holding jobs today than ever before. That’s alarming. It’s no wonder that an very high proportion of twentysomethings are not shouldering adult responsibilities, such as holding a steady, full-time job and managing their own finances. In fact, many psychologists have created a new life stage called “emerging adulthood” between adolescence and young adulthood to capture this awkward time – beyond the innocence of youth, but not quite ready for the adult world.

This decline in the percentage of teens working is a long-term trend, so the current state of the economy is not to blame. There are three primary reasons for this decline.

First, as parents have become obsessed in recent years with college admissions and career planning, they have come to devalue work, especially “blue collar” work, for their children. Thus, they make extraordinary efforts to get unpaid white collar internships for their children. The common claim is that these internships impress college admissions officers or potential employers after college.

However, I’ve had experience hiring interns, and my observation is that these “jobs” are mostly about the intern getting a line on his or her resumé rather than getting valuable work experience. More often than not, the price employers pay for interns is directly related to the value they place on the interns’ work. In other words, the assignments interns get are usually make-work projects that are not important to the operations of the employer. In turn, interns often treat their “responsibilities” to the employer lightly, blowing off days of work frequently.

My recommendation to parents is to encourage their kids to earn their own money starting in the tween or early teen years. You may be able to help them set up a business doing jobs for neighbors like babysitting or washing cars, or you may have a friend who can give them a job at a low, non-zero wage (see my comments below on the minimum wage).

The second reason for the decline of working teens is that many jobs that historically were given to teens are now given adults, often immigrants. For example, the two most prominent jobs for boys in my neighborhood when I was growing up were delivering newspapers and cutting lawns. Both are performed almost exclusively by adults these days.

The third reason is the minimum wage. Yes, a young adult whose value is $7.00 per hour may get a 25 cent windfall due to the current federal $7.25 minimum wage, but a tween or young teen whose work is worth $4.00 an hour will simply find no paying work. We’ve had a minimum wage in the US since the 1930s, but employers used to routinely ignore this law for children and teens. Certainly, my dad did, just as the employers of many of my friends back then. Thank God.

Today, I believe that employers are much more likely to suffer public condemnation for employing children at a wage below minimum. Think about it – when was the last time you saw a tween or young tween working at a retail store? When you did, what thought popped into your mind? My guess is that you felt a tinge of pity for the child and condemnation for the employer.

In my mind, admiration for both would be more appropriate, assuming that the employment relationship is mutually consensual. The child is getting a unique opportunity to learn how to work for money at a young age, and the employer is bucking current social norms to provide that opportunity.

What do you think?

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