Why a Decline in Teens Working is Bad For Them and Bad For Business

The diamond on my ringer finger I can thank in part to a teenager engaging in summer work. My husband worked during the summer every year starting at age fifteen. And although I wasn’t even on his radar at age 15, nor do I think marriage to anyone was at that point in time, his hard work and savings from that hard work led to a lovely diamond on my hand that he paid cash for.

He worked painting schools, mowing grass, driving a forklift at a lumber yard and building tree stands while in high school. His college work experience transitioned from labor-intensive endeavors to work related to his college major and ultimate career goals.

My husband was fortunate that he didn’t have to pay for college. His parents saved for it and paid for it as did some scholarship money. And he was fortunate that he didn’t have to buy his own car. His grandmother did. So, you can say he was fortunate that he had money saved from summer work that didn’t go to pay for things that most kids use summer earnings for.  But in my opinion, it wasn’t so much about the money he gained from summer work, it was what he learned from it that created value.

But according to a report by the Brooking Institute, “all school and no work becoming the norm for American teens”:

From 2000 to 2018, the labor force participation rate of 16- to 64-year-olds fell 3.6 percentage points. In previous work, we have shown that declining labor force participation among young people contributed substantially to this decline. In this analysis, we describe how teenagers (16–19-year-olds) have shifted away from working or seeking work and the impact this shift has had on the aggregate labor force participation rate.

The lack of labor participation from teens is contributing to the overall lack of labor supply in the United States.  This is a problem at the macro level.

But a bigger problem I see at the micro-level is that teens are spending so much time on school and other endeavors that they aren’t learning the value created from first jobs at an age where that learning is truly more valuable than what can be learned in the classroom or in trying to pursue two more points on an ACT score.  And this is actually hurting the macro picture more by affecting the ability of teens to transition into the labor force successfully full-time and contribute in meaningful ways.


This is because work at an early age teaches:

  1. The value of a dollar.  In a workplace where financial stress is an increasing concern, early work could help students understand earning their own money, saving, and how far their earnings actually go. You never know when you are going to want to buy a diamond. Thank goodness we didn’t start out our marriage strapped with a loan to pay off the ring on my hand.
  2. Showing up on time and being present is more than half the battle. My husband often says that his summers were more demanding than his school year.  He had to be at football workouts at 5 AM in order to be at work by 7 AM.  Having to maintain a full work schedule and juggle other activities is an important learning step and is one in which a lot of teens may be learning too late.  And one in which I fear school and sports/extracurricular activities don’t accurately mirror in the real world.
  3. An understanding and exposure to different things that can help teens best discern what they want to be when they grow up. My husband learned really quick the value of education (much more than focusing on it directly like a lot of teens do now) sweating in 100+ degree heat building tree stands and working at a lumberyard for minimum wage.  When he was older and working in the field he thought he wanted to pursue, it helped to confirm a connection to the work and the types of role(s) and work environments he’d like to pursue.  For example, he realized that even though he was good at it, he preferred operations over financial areas of health care administration, and discovered he desired to work in a not-for-profit setting as opposed to a for-profit one.


We’ve got to stop and think for a moment as individuals and as a society, what are the best means to an end?  In the end, I think we as parents, teens, teachers, and business leaders want to help young people engage in things that lead to long term success and allow them to define what that success looks like for themselves.

Mary Ila Ward

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