My two-year-old son, Leo, spends his days giggling through story time and happily throwing his toys. The coming years will be filled with homework, activities, sleepovers, vacations, and other experiences designed to boost his social and academic abilities. As he enters his teen years, I will start laying the foundation for the one element every teen should have: a part-time, minimum wage job.
Unlike older generations who decry the youths today, my motivation is based on my experience and the current struggles college grads face in the workplace. When I was 16, I got a job at a local restaurant that primarily catered to the elderly. What initially started out as a way to hang out with my friends and get financial independence turned into an opportunity to learn workplace etiquette that I still apply today.
Working an hourly job taught me managerial hierarchies, how to take critical feedback, the importance of formal communication styles with superiors, patience, and the path to promotions and raises. Yet several years into my career, I was surprised at how many new college grads lack these basic skills and instincts. I’ve also seen this innocent ignorance seriously harm a young person’s career mobility. For example, a 20-something graduate student needed me to leave my job in the middle of the workday to meet her because she “couldn’t figure out” the Metro System. I declined.
Walking across the graduation stage doesn’t automatically impart college grads with knowledge of how the workplace operates and what is expected. While workplaces vary in terms of missions and productivity, unwritten social norms and expectations are universal.
When we don’t encourage teenagers to have jobs, we make their first professional job the first time for everything: punctuality, attire, management structures, performance feedback and reviews, filling out tax withholding forms, understanding paycheck deductions, appropriate conversation topics, etc. When combined with learning the job itself, such an experience is unnecessarily overwhelming.
A part-time job exposes teenagers to all of these elements gradually over time. Asking my mother what FICA was when I was 16 fares a lot better than a 26-year-old who is coming to the realization his take-home pay won’t be as much as he originally planned. Although it can be difficult at first, learning how to balance work, school, and extracurricular activities as a teenager with some parental oversight makes for a more comfortable, independent transition to college and/or adulthood.
To be sure, I’m not longing for the days of brutal child labor. Teenagers should work part-time when their livelihoods don’t depend on it. Jobs should be in a low-risk environment with managers who are used to training and overseeing that age demographic. Teens need a place where screwing up won’t have major, long-term consequences for their employer and getting fired doesn’t put food and shelter at risk. High schoolers are expected to make mistakes and flounder because they’re not independent adults with an expensive degree. College graduates do not have that same flexibility, which is why they frequently become targets for frustrated bosses.
The biggest objection from parents is that teenagers have the rest of their lives to work so the time in high school should be free from such pressures. Although that is true, operating a cash register ten hours a week for spending money is much different than working a full-time job to get health care and groceries. The obligations and stress levels are not the same.
Most importantly, I want Leo to have a job while he’s under my roof so I can help teach him about how quickly a paycheck can disappear or what to do if his employer runs afoul of labor laws. If he has a bad day at work, I want to help him get through it then so he’ll know how to react when he’s grown up. My parental guidance would be equally essential if Leo was learning how to drive a car or navigate a relationship or deal with a difficult teacher.
Parents should use the precious, finite time we have with our children to prepare them to live an independent, productive adult life. Young adults already face so much shock when they enter the work world, so why not reduce that burden where we can? One of the best ways I can do this is to help Leo find a job the day after his 16th birthday.