#FirstSevenJobs: Major Changes for Teens and Young Adults

What started out as a fun hashtag, #FirstSevenJobs, has led to a discussion about our country's major shift in employment trends for teens and young adults. While many of us list jobs starting in our teens (babysitting, lawn mowing, cooking hamburgers, etc.), in 2014 only one in four teens had a job. What will the other 75% of teens #FirstSevenJobs list look like in 20 years?

In "Worrying declines in teen and young adult employment," a report from the Brookings Institution, employment rate trends between 2000 and 2014 are analyzed. Two main points quickly emerge.

  1. Labor force participation for youth ages 16-24 continues to go down, with the biggest declines for teens.
  2. Earnings declined for teens and young adults.

News writers list many reasons for why less youth are working. Popular theories include it's hard to find jobs as well as that many families feel that other activities are more useful to build resumes and college applications. When we take a close look at wages, another possible reason jumps out.

Wages for teens and young adults are not keeping up with inflation. In 2000, the median wage for a teen was $8.18 an hour. Between 2000 and 2014, median hourly earnings fell 6 percent to $7.69 among teens (16-19 years). That doesn't sound too bad but if we take into consideration the inflation rate, we can see the true decline in purchasing power. A teen in 2014 would need to make $11.25 an hour to have the same purchasing power as the typical teen in 2000!

While wages decreased less for youth with high school diplomas from 2000 to 2014 (median hourly wage of $10.91 versus $10.58), to keep up with purchasing power the hourly wage should have risen to $15.00 by 2014.

The decreased buying power of teen and young adults' wages likely has many societal implications including families not encouraging their youth to work. For example, I was able to work full-time at a minimum wage job in the summer and pay for my four-year college tuition the next year. Between wage declines (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and increases in college costs, that's just not possible today. In fact, if working part-time in college means that it takes an extra year to graduate, then it's a close call whether or not this is financially worthwhile.

However, being able to find and keep jobs is important to a financially stable and secure life. What does this mean for young adults who enter the job force for the first time with a college degree or training beyond high school?

Have they missed the opportunity to learn important skills that would prepare them for their work role? For example, will they be comfortable greeting and helping people in their new jobs if they haven't had the customer training that comes with part-time food service jobs?

Many studies show that employers want employees with "soft skills" such as professionalism, good communication and teamwork skills, as well as the ability to problem-solve. Jamie Boas, University of Illinois Extension 4-H Youth Development Educator, recommends that youth learn concrete, soft skills such as:

  • Making eye contact when talking to others,
  • Being comfortable shaking hands as a greeting, and
  • Dressing appropriately for work environments.

If youth aren't practicing these skills while working for a wage, then hopefully they will have other opportunities to do so.

When working with young adults in internships and other situations, Jamie Boas has emphasized to them that "being on time" really means arriving early and being ready to go before work time starts. Another important message for youth is to remember that your image reflects the company you work for; dress for the company look not necessarily the "look" you prefer on your own time.

An excellent guide for parents and others working with youth, "Helping Youth Build Work Skills for Job Success: Tips for Parents and Families" is free on the web or call your local Extension office (217-333-7672) to have a copy mailed to you.

We want our young adults to be ready for productive careers, whether they work as teens as not. We may need to look for new ways for them to build those life skills that we learned in our summer and part-time jobs.