Get A Job, Kid?

Happy Monday.  Reader Joanne starts off the week with a very interesting question:

At what age does WG think it’s best for kids to get their first job? My son is 16 and can’t think of anything worse than working. All he wants to do is hang out with his friends. I think he should get a job. And also, do you think working can hurt kid’s grades?

Of course your son just wants to hang out with his friends.  Given the choice between goofing off and working for a pittance at menial, soul-destroying labor (your standard teen job), who wouldn’t choose goofing off?  Aren’t you glad he’s normal?

However, you sound as if you feel that a job might be “good” for your son.    It might teach him responsibility, build a work ethic, lend structure to his schedule, and keep him out of trouble. 

And it might.  Even though Working Girl HATED every single one of her adolescent jobs, she has to agree that they taught her the rule of cause and effect.  I.e., if she worked, she had money.  If she didn’t, she didn’t.  If you call that character-building then, yes, WG got character. 

So you might be surprised at this answer:  Unless there is real financial need, teenagers should not have jobs.  They should concentrate on school and on activities that lead toward their eventual life work.  Flipping burgers is rarely an ultimate career choice.  So why flip burgers in high school? 

Discovering your true livelihood is really hard (for most people—others seem to know what they want from an early age).  Adolescence, when in theory you do not need to be earning a living, is an ideal time to do this.  Your job as parent?  To help the kid discover.

Yes, it’s important to learn responsibility and whatnot, but a job is not the only way to accomplish this.  “Character-building” is something that needs to go on in every part of a child’s life, in school and at home, all the time.  

And, yeah, Working Girl does think that having a job can hurt a teen’s grades.  Even the kid who gets straight A’s while working 20 hours a week as a grocery bagger would be better off spending those 20 hours delving deeper into the fields that interest him (reading beyond the textbook, doing extra research, interviewing experts in that field, whatever). 

Does this answer surprise you?  You may have noticed that WG spends a lot of time on this blog raving about the wonders and glories of work.  And work is as important a part of life as love!  But our goal should be to do work that is meaningful and fulfilling.  It can take years to find out what that is. 

Start the search early! 

No Comments

  • Tania says:

    Surely jobs are valuable experience, so, yes, start the search early in your youth. I think that a variety of jobs as a teenager ought to help her work out what work might be “meaningful and fulfilling” and what traits she has, strengths, weaknesses, passions, etc. How does a young person know what is really involved in so many areas without getting in there. I guess I’m mixing up menial tasks with “job experience”.
    My husband believes everyone should try sales, simply for the humbling of it, (if one is not gifted that way).

  • Trish says:

    I totally agree with you, teens don’t need steady jobs, their job is school. I add the caveat that I think it’s okay for teens to have the occasional job, i.e. petsitting, babysitting, being paid by a neighbor for an occasional odd job or a summer job which is a good tradeoff for a teen to see what it’s like to have to work without the year round comittment and perhaps make them more interested in furthering themselves in school to not have to work a menial job in the future. If they have too much free time on their hands, maybe volunteering or at the very least helping out more around the house could fill their time.

  • Melissa says:

    Well, perhaps this puts me in the “I had to do it, so everyone else should, too,” category, but I believe teenagers should work. There is no better way to understand the realities of budgeting, and of making priorities about how to spend or save your time and money. I baby-sat, house cleaned and worked in a bookstore before college — all of which made me more confident of my ability to earn a living and to find a job when I needed to in college. Working made me feel self-suffient in a really empowering way. I was so thrilled when I could actually buy my parents great Christmas presents. This started me very early in my teens on the path to experiencing the pleasure of giving to others. Working also gave me exposure to working with the public, dealing with an authority figure (other than my parents) and scheduling my time. I believe these are very worthwhile things to learn and that they actually helped me a great deal in college. I have personal experience with teenagers and college students who don’t know how to budget and seem to be pretty clueless about money and life realities. I don’t feel we do them any favors by shielding them from learning about these realities. Five to seven hours of work a week is not much of a hardship and this experience will make it that much easier to secure a job when they need to help with college expenses.

  • Terry says:

    To this day I still remember getting my first paycheck at the tender age of 13. It stunned me that my work was valued, and it felt good. I was empowered. There’s nothing else like it and I highly recommend it to everyone. It was that feeling, that one defining moment, that transformed me from a welfare kid with nothing to look forward to, into a wage-earning college-bound kid with a future.

    In my current life with a soon-to-be driving teenager in the house, I feel like there’s responsibility that comes with driving (which is a responsibility in and of itself) and that includes car washing and tank filling duties. I just put gas in the car yesterday, and at $3.44 / gallon, it’s now costing me about $60.00 to fill up the tank. Rantings on gas prices aside, I would think it reasonable for a young driver to be able to fill the tank with her own hard-earned cash if she expects to drive around town. Life costs money. Get a job. Get that good feeling inside you and feel proud that you CAN get and keep a job. It’s all good.

  • Alfonse D'Auto says:

    Dear WG,

    I had a job all the way through high school, and, if I may be so crude, it really bit the big one. It was every day after school and all day Saturday. While most of my friends were off doing the sort of things I don’t want my daughter to do in high school, I was selling stuff to people. And while I don’t know if it taught me any real lessons in life other than the fact that the world is full of idiots, and I had a little money with which to buy gas, I felt kind of cheated out of what should have been the last care free days of my life.

    That being said, I think I will urge my daughter to do some baby sitting and other short-term jobs that won’t tie her down too much or keep her away from doing homework. I will also urge her to not do some of the things my friends were off doing while I was at work.


  • By all means kids/teens should get a job ASAP. How else are they going to learn what constitutes a good: job, career choice, boss, co-worker. How best to interface with clients/customers/co-workers. A learning experience is just that. James A. Michener, years ago wrote an essay published in the Reagers Digest. The essence was there is no such thing as wasted time, time spent teaches something to even the most indifferent. One learns not to do that kind of work if it’s meaningless, a low wage paying job. One can learn a bit about business if one is paying attention, yes flipping burgers. One can learn how not to flip them, how to do it better, become the day or night manager of the crew, own the franchise store, and one day a chain of her/his own. One can learn what one doesn’t want to do in life as well as be motivated to figure out what career is the right career after cleaning toilets all night. Many a youngester, including WG, carried newspapers as a youth and learned a ton: beware of dogs, don’t fail to bargain for wages with your rip-off brother, and many other worthwhile lessons. As for grades slipping, any excuse for failure is an option for the lazy, those who lie to themselves. Dino, when in the employment business, looked at “first jobs” as a key to hiring prospects. The question in mind being is this applicant a self starter, one who works to self imposed standards, or is this a person some manager is going to have to micro-manage, drive stakes behind every step of the way to the work done. One of the least best indicators of success on the job (I finally learned) is G. P. A. Tell me what you accomplished, and how you did it with what resources (learned from other jobs), or what you had to do (manage your time) to achieve even the least of your accomplishments, to graduate at the bottom of your class. But you got ‘er done!

  • A Reader says:

    After reading all the comments, I have to go along with Dino. I think, on the whole, having a job is a positive experience for a young person. As far as wasting their time with a menial job, instead of preparing for their future, are you kidding? Yes, some kids have an idea of what they want to do in high school, but most don’t and don’t care, at that point, and given free time, they are not going to research for the future – they are going to goof off. At a job, at least they may be learning that the last thing they want in life is a menial job, and they had better buckle down so they can get the good job later. So, for most kids, having a job is better than not.

  • Sara says:

    Karen, I agree with your “dicey” answer to the working teen question. I would add that a way to develop the qualities/characteristics you believe are important (I so agree), would be to have our teens do some volunteer work…in an area that interests them, or just to support/sustain our community!

  • Louise says:

    Sorry WG. I disagree with you. I think Melissa and Terry have it all right. 5-10 hours per week maximum during school, maybe 20 during the summer is not too much. You are deluded if you think kids who don’t work are “delving deeper into the fields that interest him”. Some exceptional kids might do that, but your average teen would spend the time less productively. In summer I do feel there’s value in relaxing and just hanging out, but a 20 hour per week job is not going to crimp that style too much. Here’s to learning about life.

  • If a teen is doing volunteer work that’s great, but who is she/he meeting? Most likely other volunteers if she/he is picking up litter, or the distressed, sick, indigent, and attending medical professionals if volunteering at an institution? Who is she/he meeting if behind the counter (flipping burgers) most likely a broader spectrum of people. Which experience is more likely to be a richer, broader learning opportunity? While the volunteer work may be more valuable to the greater society (and be valuable learning being exposed to professional care givers, and excellent sensitivity exposure), methinks she/he will take away more in knowledge of people (and business) if at a job behind a counter serving the public at large, including some of the same people she/he would be exposed to doing volunteer work, though situated in a somewhat different context.

  • joanne says:

    Although I completley agree with your comments, Karen, I still think kids having jobs is a good idea. It’s hard to separate if it was just a really good experience for me from if it’s a really good experience that every teen should have. I am unsure that if I hadn’t worked, would I have discovered my calling to be an artist sooner? Maybe. But what I really think I would have been doing is just hanging out with my friends more and getting into trouble which is what we did in my day. I don’t see my kid doing constructive things with his free time like entering writing contests or contacting journalists to ask them questions about their profession. I guess in the end I think your words makes sense but only in theory.