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Christopher Uggen, University of Minnesota

Jeremy Staff, Penn State University

a website for and about America's rising generation, born in the 1980s and '90s

Andy Sum, Northeastern University Director of Labor Market Studies

US Department of Labor Statistics

Firestone High School, Akron

Junior Achievement Survey 'Why Teens Work'

Julie Grant
Teenagers: The Millennial Generation and Jobs

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Teenagers today are busy. They often have more homework and feel more pressure than past generations to participate in extra-curricular activities. In addition, many high-schoolers today hold jobs after school to make money.

WKSU's Julie Grant reports:

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Some students at Akron's Firestone High School are so busy, they eat lunch at their desks during class. Guidance counselor Debbie Christy says many teens keep their plates so full because they're competing for acceptance and financial aid to top colleges. They are, in effect, building resumes:

CHRISTY: "It's no longer just the grades and their standardized test scores. It's involvement in the community, it's leadership, it's involvement in extra clubs and activities. It's a whole set of commitments that they're looking for in a well-rounded student and it's very competitive. And a lot of our student body is interested in the selective schools...

WISBERGER: "...And with all the different criteria that Debbie was talking about to get into schools, I would put working a part time job at the very bottom of that list."

Mark Wisberger is another guidance counelor at Firestone. He tells students not to even bother including a job on their college applications. But it doesn't stop them from working:

WISBERGER: "I think over the past ten years, I've seen an increase in the number of students who work part-time, for sure. And it does take a big bite out of being a high school student and the whole high school experience. We've talked a lot about how they have jobs to support their car and cars to support their job. They do spend in my opinion way too much time worried about part time jobs after school. "

Wisberger says teen workers often seem more like mini-adults because they worry about jobs and paying bills rather than homework and school activities. Nationally, more than a third of 16 to 19-year-olds work.

Briana is a friendly 17-year-old. She's standing behind the customer assistance desk at a chain drug store, where she works 30 hours a week:

BRIANA: "I've worked here a little over a year."

And she's had to give up some things:

BRIANA: "...I wanted to play volleyball, but work and sports are really hard to do with my hours."

JG: "Why do you work?"

BRIANA: "Why do I work? To have money so I can buy stuff. So I can buy a car and insurance and everything, extra stuff for myself. "

Briana gives a double thumbs up when asked if she's saved enough money for the car she wants. But she's put in some long days for it. School started at seven this morning... and she'll finish her work here at ten tonight. Then she'll do her homework.

JG: "Do you feel like homework is secondary to everything else?"

BRIANA: "Um. Kind of. But I'm getting straight As, so it's good, I'm trying to keep up my grades. I really push myself to do good."

Firestone High School English teacher Judy Harrison says many of her students work:

HARRISON: "...and not just my seniors. I have a lot of sophomores that have jobs and they come in and they're tired because they work 20-hours a week or more. And their schoolwork suffers. I don't care what anybody says."

Some wider research shows potential positive and negative effects of teens working. 15 hours per week seems to be a threshold. Beyond that, students often have lower grades, higher dropout rates, and are less likely to go to college. Jeremy Staff is a sociology professor at Penn State University who has studied teenagers and work. He says there are different views about how jobs affect students:

STAFF: "Critics of teenage work argue that youth who work at a younger age may adopt more adult-like leisure activities and spending patterns from these particular jobs which can lead to things like early dating, alcohol and drug use, and even possible school misconduct or problems within school."

Guidance counselors say many teens have had a hard time saying no to their employer when asked to work long hours. Jeremy Staff's research partner, Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota, is surprised by the number of undergraduates who say things about being mistreated while working in high school:

UGGEN: "Boy, I was really victimized on that job. Or there was this creepy guy at the ice cream store who would corner me and do all these things to me and I didn't do anything about it."

But some studies show that work can help young people, with things such as time management. Staff says students seem to benefit from jobs with structured adult supervision and a clear connection to academics. Andrea is a 17-year-old high school junior who works at McDonald's up to 30 hours a week. She says it helps her in ways beyond money:

ANDREA: "Yes, it really does. It helps me manage my time and to prioritize, what's more important school or work?"

JG: "What's more important, school or work?"

ANDREA: "School. Because I gotta go to school so I won't be working at McDonalds the rest of my life."

Andrea plans to go to college. But she lives with her older sister and all her work money goes toward the rent and other bills. Like many teenagers, she believes she needs to join some extra curricular activities to earn a scholarship:

ANDREA: "I wanted to do drill team. They haven't had tryouts yet, but I'm thinkin' about trying out when they do have tryouts for drill team. But then that's gonna cut off from my work. You know. Then there's the prioritizing part. Do I wanna work for McDonalds that's not gonna help me pay for college or do I want to go to school and do extracurricular activities so that I can go to college?"

But Andrea may be lucky to even have a job. Andy Sum, director of labor market studies at Northeastern University, says the job market for teens is tough right now:

SUM: "We've never seen... To be honest with you, we've never seen such a low rate of employment. Whether year-round or during the summer. This is the lowest employment rate for teenagers since we've been collecting this data, which goes back to 1948. It's never been this bad."

Teenagers, especially in the inner city, now have to compete with older workers, illegal immigrants, and college students for low wage jobs. Professor Sum says the federal government used to subsidize hundreds of thousands of jobs for inner city teenagers. But that's dried up in recent years. He's concerned about the long term effects, especially for those who drop out of high school expecting to get a job:

SUM: "The more work you do when you're a teenager, the more you'll work when you're 20-24. The more I work when I'm a teenager, the better my wage is going to be when I'm 20-24. But if you want to know the kids who are worst off, it's the kids not in school, not working when they're 17, 18, 19. That is the best predictor of you being poor and dependent when you're 25-29 years old. So kids who don't get any kind of start on the labor market leave school, don't go college, those kids I guarantee to be your underclass of the future. "

While they're teenagers, Millennials are turning out to be a highly stressed group... those who cannot find jobs or those who can.