7 October 2023

Should teenagers be in the workforce?

| Zoya Patel
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Young men in McDonald's uniforms

A job at Maccas is a rite of passage. Should it be? Photo: McDonald’s.

My wonderful niece just got her first job at 16 and she’s excited for her initiation into the world of food service. Alright, I think she’s more excited for the extra cash, and the rest of us are excited to see her grow and develop with this new experience – the way we all did when we first started working.

But it turns out, as I have discovered, that a whole cohort of parents actively don’t want their teenagers working until they’re out of school and fully grown adults. I had no idea that there were perceived detriments to teens having part-time jobs as my friends and I were counting down the days to when we would finally turn 14 and 9 months and be able to put our applications into the local Subway or McDonald’s.

My parents encouraged me and all my siblings to get jobs when we could, with the only caveat being that we weren’t allowed to work over a certain number of hours, so we were still prioritising school. But the moves towards independence by having an income we could control and the responsibility of working for someone, were welcomed and supported.

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The way I see it now, getting a job as a teenager, if you don’t actually need the income for your basic needs, is more about personal development and growth than it is about any financial gains. The confidence I gained as a young person from navigating a workplace, meeting new people, taking directions from a boss, and speaking to and serving customers was immense.

And when it was stressful, the lessons I learned from those circumstances are the ones I still remember now. My very first job when I was 15 was a complete disaster. My boss was a man going through a harrowing divorce, and he was barely keeping it together, treating me to long tirades about his ex-wife on every shift, where unfortunately the staff only comprised the two of us.

He would swear at me whenever giving ‘feedback’, and I would go home and cry. When I finally worked up the courage to quit, having found a much less stressful job as a tutor, he berated me, begged me to stay, and then, as a parting gift, made me clean the toilets (which was never on the job list before). I wouldn’t say I liked that experience, but it taught me a lot about what was and wasn’t appropriate behaviour in a workplace, how to react to strong feedback, how to set boundaries, and when to call it quits.

The jobs I had after taught me how to manage my time, deliver results and take direction. I worked continuously from that first job for the rest of school, then with three jobs simultaneously in university, and into full-time work directly after graduating. I’m glad I did, and I am grateful to my parents for encouraging it and supporting me in those early years with lifts to and from work and help in opening a bank account and doing a tax return.

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The argument against teens working, at least that I have come across, is that they have the rest of their lives to work, and they should enjoy being teenagers while they can. There are obviously plenty more specific reasons why some teenagers can’t or shouldn’t work, including mental health concerns, and these complex factors might impact their school or home life or other responsibilities. But if the concern is that kids are growing up too fast or that the grind of work will detract from their ability to be young, I disagree.

Yes, in ideal circumstances, no kid should have to work to contribute to their family until adulthood. But working five to 10 hours a week at a part-time job for some extra cash and the experience is definitely worth the sacrifice of time spent otherwise, and is also helpful for when they apply for future employment.

I feel proud of my niece for taking the initiative to find a job, even though she’s been so stressed about doing something completely new with people she doesn’t know. To me, that seems like an important life experience. But perhaps my views are the result of indoctrination by the capitalist machine, and kids should be kids.

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One great thing about working as a teenager is that you spend your own money, not your parent’s, and it feels great to be your own master. Obviously the jobs aren’t all good, so my advice has always been that when you’re in the middle of the drudgery, just think of the money.

Thlyacine Polyester12:58 pm 29 Sep 23

Were you able to get home safely before and after work? My parents refused to pick me up and I started accepting lifts from some of the regulars because it was preferable to the 5km walk or taxi fare.
Ditto support from someone after encountering difficult situations. Many kids do not have this and it just leads to greater risk taking and unsafe situations.

Megan van der Velde6:59 am 29 Sep 23

I can so relate to the author on this one! As a kid, I learned so much at my first job (which I stayed in for 7 years through school and uni). It paid for the extra luxuries my parents couldn’t afford like teenage girl things, and eventually, my travel as a young person. All of my three children did the same. I think the other thing to consider is that some kids are not great academics and having a job gives them another dimension where that CAN potentially succeed at something. Additionally, one of my kids was a very very shy young man and working at the local supermarket really assisted him to start to be able to talk to ‘strangers’ with more confidence and become someone who then travelled the world with this new found ability to talk to anyone. Having said all that, viva la difference. Parents can choose what they believe is best for their kids. As long as kids are loved, they will do just fine!

I coach lots of sports and I could not count the number of young teenagers who are not elite but just participate who tell me they are dropping sport so they can “take another shift”… or when they get to the pointy end of high school say they say they need to drop sport as, after their work shifts, they need extra time for assignments and to study.

Gregg Heldon8:26 am 28 Sep 23

I started working full time, straight from year 10, when I was 15. Best thing that had happened to me up to that point. I also paid board, saved, and, by the time I had turned 17, I had bought the car which I got my licence in on my 17th birthday (1971 Holden HG Monaro) and had paid for a holiday whilst still having money in the bank.
My Mum guided me but it helped forge values, maturity and responsibilities in me, which I hope I still have.
If kids want to work, let them.

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