Your Teenager Needs a Summer Job

CC BY 2.0. Antoine K

Summer jobs hold value far beyond the dollars earned, which is why it's unfortunate they're in decline.

Ask your adult friends about the summer jobs they held as teenagers, and they’re bound to crack a smile and tell a few great stories. There’s something about those early years of part-time employment that sear themselves into one’s being. For many, it’s the first time being away from parents and having to interact with other adults and customers with confidence. It’s a chance to learn new skills, to show responsibility and be accountable, and to experience the deep pleasure of depositing a pay check. Most importantly, it’s eye-opening to realize how much time and effort has gone into earning that pay check.

I’m all about lazy childhoods; I’ve written about this many times on TreeHugger, and most frequently last week with “The manifesto of the idle parent.” But I’m also a big supporter of summer jobs for teenagers. I believe that once those glorious play years are past, those young’uns should be seeking employment and throwing themselves, heart and soul, into whatever low-paying, menial, and repetitive task they’ve been blessed to receive for a few short, hot weeks out of the year.

And so, it was with great interest that I read an article in The Economist yesterday, titled, “The decline of the American teenager’s summer job.” Despite many successful, self-made Americans telling stories about summer jobs – “involving alarm clocks clanging before dawn, aching muscles, stern bosses and soul-fortifying hours of boredom” – the number of teens who are employed during summer has dropped from 72 percent in 1978 to 43 percent in 2016.

What’s going on?

The consensus seems to be that many parents these days (who, oddly enough, belong to a generation that did work as teenagers) actively discourage their teens from taking jobs. The Economist writes:

“Parents instead tell their children to study, take summer courses, volunteer or practise for sports that might help them compete for college places. Some of [Dixon, Illinois, mayor Liandro] Arellano’s worst staff have been youngsters who do not need the money or want a job reference: they are the ones who quit without warning to go on a family holiday. Well-off parents are not always ‘super-supportive’, he sighs.”

Parents are more concerned with experiences that will boost college eligibility and so are willing to carry their kids’ living expenses in order to allow more time for these ‘educational’ experiences. But this, to me, seems rather short-sighted. Indeed, a June article in the Washington Post on “lazy teenage summers” cited Rob Lieber, author of The Opposite of Spoiled, who said:

“Upper-middle class families and above have made the determination that college admissions officers devalue paid work and that if you’re not pursuing a hectic schedule of activities you’ll be less appealing to colleges. So now we have over-programmed children who are all the same.”

It appears that over-competitive parents have largely constructed that narrative themselves, because former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims made it clear in last year’s book, How to Raise an Adult, that colleges would love to see students applying who have more real-world experience. From my review:

“[Lythcott-Haims] insists on the importance of unstructured play time, teaching life skills through chores... preparing them for hard work by setting high expectations for their help at home, and normalizing the idea of struggle, which is something so many parents try to erase on behalf of their children.”

Parents cannot be blamed entirely for the decline of the summer job, of course. There are restricted hours, inflexible schedules, increasingly short vacation weeks, and ridiculously low wages that hardly make it worth a teen’s efforts. In states where unemployment is high, there is competition from older, more experienced applicants, as well as some state-mandated minimum ages at which teens can drive at night, discouraging employers looking to cover late shifts. And likely the widespread closures of brick-and-mortar stores in easy-to-access downtown cores don't help the situation.

But parents and teenagers should not give up so easily. Summer jobs are a time for growth, a time to add that sought-after “grit” that cannot be replicated with any number of tutors, camps, or overseas vacations. Elite education is one thing, but, as The Economist says, it “counts for little without self-discipline and drudgery.” A job will add color to their resume and funny stories to their repertoire; it could be an opportunity to make unusual friendships across generations and different socio-economic strata; it will build resilience and humility; and it will make them appreciate the value of a dollar and the importance of education.