Lots of American teenagers need to work after school to help support their families. But there’s a case to be made that those who don’t need to work should get a job anyway.
Conditions couldn’t be more optimal. Unemployment, close to a 50-year low, has made the kinds of jobs well suited to kids — no prior experience, minimum wage, part-time — more widely available.
Yet fewer teenagers work nowadays than a generation ago. The share of teenagers in the work force has risen from a low of roughly a quarter in 2010 to about a third of older teenagers holding down a job of one kind or another since the pandemic. But when I was in high school in the late 1980s, around half of 16-to-19-year-olds held jobs. Gen X parents who grew up working after-school shifts at the local drugstore often lament the fact that their own children haven’t always had the same opportunities.
Many instead favor an array of extracurricular activities that burnish their college applications, like student government and peer tutoring. This may be a mistake even for those parents and kids more concerned about college admissions than about what happens after that. Consider that having an afternoon job cultivates skills like time management and instills a sense of independence and personal responsibility — attributes that many college administrators say some students today lack.
But after-school jobs teach more concrete lessons as well. Personally, I learned more working outside school — starting with three afternoons a week when I was 14 and ending with three jobs juggled, seven days a week, my senior year of high school — than I did in the classroom.
Here are 10 valuable things I learned:
1. Being good at school doesn’t mean being good at work. At my very first job, at a real estate agency, I learned how difficult it is to type an address on a business envelope with a result the average postal worker can read. My A in seventh-grade touch-typing was meaningless in this arena. I was let go by the end of the day.
2. Being fired isn’t the end of your career — and neither is quitting. My second job, at a bakery, was better suited to my skills and (let’s just say) appetites. But what looks good on display doesn’t look nearly as tasty in the back room, where roaches snacked on the same sprinkles I’d sneaked into my mouth out front. At this job, I learned you can quit.
3. You learn what it’s like to make minimum wage. That meant $3.35 an hour in my case. If that was a lesson worth learning then, it’s even more important to understand now, at a time of grotesque income disparities and stagnating wages for the working and middle classes.
4. You’re being paid for your time. Possibly by the minute. One boss of mine periodically yelled, “Don’t lean on that counter; clean that counter!” I didn’t love it, but it left me with an indelible appreciation for the transactional nature of work. Employees aren’t there for anyone’s pleasure.
5. Promotions aren’t automatic. Restaurants, for example, can be rigidly hierarchal, with people putting in years hostessing or busing before moving up the ranks. I learned that you don’t necessarily get a promotion, even if you perform well. It takes patience.
6. Bosses can behave badly. Like the married restaurant owner who pinched me when the mood struck and whispered deeply inappropriate things in my ear. I was less traumatized than flabbergasted. Most 15-year-olds today are probably not as naïve as I was, but even they can learn surprising things about supposedly adult behavior and what they’re prepared to put up with and what they swear they’ll never do if they’re ever in a position of authority. You learn how the world works, for better and for worse, and how you might like to change that world.
7. Being in a workplace means working with people who aren’t like you. Nearly every employee at Laura Ashley shoplifted. Some coordinated their thievery, wrapping stolen bottles of perfume in stolen sweaters while another employee kept watch. At any workplace, you will have to work alongside people with different backgrounds and values from yours, and you have to figure out how to get along nonetheless.
8. Not everyone is as lucky as you are. In service jobs, you’re often working with immigrants of uncertain legal status. You learn to be grateful for the protections you get from being on the books and to make allowances for others less fortunate.
9. Boredom comes with the job. At a warehouse, I was paid to paste photos of merchandise into handmade catalogs for sales reps. Over and over and over again. At Grand Union, I checked out and bagged groceries. You learn to put up with tedium or to make rote work interesting, whether it’s memorizing four-digit produce codes or trying to discern precisely which item drove the middle-aged man buying a single zucchini, a six-pack of beer and a box of tampons to the market.
10. School skills can be acquired outside of school. On weekends, I took a train into the city to work at a French-owned boutique where I was able to practice my French. In that era of non-computerized cash registers, my arithmetic also got a regular workout.
Given my weekly work schedule, I had little time, it’s true, for extracurricular activities. I didn’t play a sport. I didn’t play an instrument. I wasn’t class president. Despite these deficiencies, I applied early to a good college and got in. One of the first things I did when I got there was get a job.