Why Has the Summer Job for Teens Fallen by the Wayside?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

Times have changed. Families may now value educational opportunities or service opportunities, like building houses for Habitat for Humanity, over the skills acquired by scooping ice cream or mowing lawns. But teenagers are missing out on valuable life skills by not working summer jobs, writes Dave Shiflett for the Wall Street Journal.

Younger parents of Shiflett’s acquaintance often tell him what their kids are doing for the summer, much to Shiflett’s bafflement: building latrines in Guatemala? Meditating at an ashram? These are nothing, implies Shiflett, compared to the physical labor of his own adolescence: working construction, for example, or delivering papers. He describes his own character-building experiences of working with people of different backgrounds, of accidentally running a coworker over with an upright piano, and finally, the extremely character-building near-death experience of a tractor accident that left both his lungs punctured.

So, OK, it’s possible that parents today want to spare their children violent workplace injuries before they’re even old enough to vote. And the competitive college admissions process might leave middle- or upper-middle class families hoping that an internship or ashram looks better on applications than flipping burgers at the Tasty Shack.

My teenage summers were all spent working for the rest of the year’s spending money. I scooped ice cream, rang up coffees in a bakery, and waited tables. But jobs for teens were plentiful then, and they’re scarce now: The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds, as of 2013, was 22.2 percent versus 7.3 percent for the overall population. Teenagers working to contribute to college may find that their labor doesn’t even make a dent in college tuition costs—so why not head to the ashram, or, as Shiflett derides, build latrines in Guatemala? My kids might make a similar choice, when the time comes. But I would consider it a loss: The work I did in the summer was invaluable for all my future jobs—nothing teaches you to “manage work flow” like waitressing at a busy boardwalk restaurant on 4th of July weekend. And nothing teaches you to handle and appreciate money like earning it yourself.

The summer job may be a victim of the economy and a competitive college application process, but its demise is not without consequences. Delaying the first job till after college delays growing up.

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