Actually, flipping burgers might do more for their college prospects than that fancy extracurricular.
In 1978 72 percent of teens had jobs. In 2016 that number was 43 percent. And when you ask about summer jobs specifically, the decline is even more precipitous. Pew recently found that just 35 percent of 16-to-19 year olds worked over the summer.
So what, you might say. If you’re anything like me you probably don’t remember your summertime burger flipping or life guarding with all that much affection. Maybe kids these days are just too busy doing meaningful volunteer work, catching up on their reading, or starting statistics-defying businesses from their bedroom laptops.
Reading, do-gooding, or entrepreneurialism are good things — and as this in-depth explanation of why fewer teens have paid summer gigs explains, all these factors play some role in the shift away from paid summer work– but there are still good reasons to insist your teen get herself a part-time gig scooping ice cream or babysitting the neighbor’s kids next summer.
1. It will help them get into college
That academic enrichment camp or stint building a school in Malawi might seem like a better bet if you’re gunning to get into a top ranked school, but admissions officials actually look more favorably on unglamorous but character-building summer scut work, insists Quartz’s Jenny Anderson.
“Colleges will forever find holding a job more attractive, and far sexier than going to Costa Rica to build houses and surf in the afternoons,” New York-based college counselor Susan Warner, told Anderson.
Former Stanford admissions officer Irena Smith recalls one applicant who spent the summer working a fast food gig. “Given the population of students I see, she probably shone like a diamond in the applicant pool at Harvard,” she’s been quoted as saying.
2. They’ll learn basically life skills.
Showing up to work on time every day and handling the dinner rush at a diner won’t teach you to interpret Chaucer or build an app, but it will teach you to work hard, prioritize tasks, and other adulting basics.
3. They’ll learn to talk to people.
High school is a weird hot house where young people are only forced to talk to people their same age or adults who are paid to put up with them. (Ubiquitous smart phones aren’t helping kids branch out.) As we all know, that is not how the real world works. The better you are at connecting with diverse people, the more likely you will be to get ahead.
Working with the public — as maddening as it can be sometimes — is a crash course in this important skill. Take the case of Anderson’s Quartz colleague, managing editor Kira Bindrim, who spent one teenage summer working the front desk at a tattoo shop.
4. They’ll learn to make “boring” work interesting.
A large body of academic research shows that what sets motivated workers apart from unmotivated ones often isn’t any specific quality of the job itself. It’s an individual’s attitude toward the work that matters.
Yes, most summer jobs are pretty mind-numbing, but that might be the point. Finding a way to get through repetitive, not-obviously-meaningful work by shifting your perspective, cultivating relationships with colleagues, and taking initiative is a skill that will serve young people well throughout their professional lives (and particularly at the start of them).
5. They’ll understand the value of money (and branding).
It’s an old saw that a summer jobs teach teens the value of money, but just because you remember being annoyed hearing it from your dad doesn’t make it untrue. And working a low-paid gig won’t just teach your kid to rethink the value of the $50 he’s about to drop on pants. Seeing how business works might just make him rethink the value of the pants themselves.
In the same Quartz article, reporter Lila MacLellan recalls a summer spent working on an assembly line sewing various labels into pants. With just that small change identical khakis were transformed from bargain essentials to higher priced brand offerings.
“My frugal, blue-collar dad had always sworn that it was all the same ‘goddamned crap.’ The ‘no name’ catsup brand was the same as Heinz, and the shirts he bought at a discount store were no different than those from a ‘respectable’ shop,” she remembers. Her summer job taught her he was largely right.
In a similar way seeing the owner of one restaurant I worked at shamelessly swap random fish for the “haddock” promised by the menu without customers batting an eye reinforced my own marketing skepticism (and no, trust me, you really can’t taste the difference between decaf and regular). Exposure to the shadier side of business might not be the first benefit most parents think of when they insist their kid get a summer job, but seeing how the sausage gets made does make for savvier consumers.
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in Cyprus with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.