Lifeguarding. Lawn mowing. Fast food. These are just a few of the summer jobs my two stepsons had when they were teenagers. We didn’t explicitly require the boys to work. But when I told my youngest stepson, Trinity, that I was writing about this topic, he said that by the time he got to high school, “I knew my parents wouldn’t just throw cash at me while I was a bum all summer.”
But plenty of kids are just bumming around these days. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than half of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 were employed last July, the month when youth employment typically peaks. This percentage was significantly lower than both five and 10 years ago. One reason for the decline is that teens are having more trouble finding jobs in an economy that’s gotten so bad that many adults are taking whatever kind of employment they can get.
Another factor driving lower rates of teen employment is modern parenting. Many parents have mixed feelings about their children working. Some parents I know feel strongly that their child should get a job. Others would like their kids to work but feel that sports and volunteering and other activities that might help get them into college are more important. Some worry all that those extracurriculars plus a summer job will be too much responsibility. At the same time, however, many of my friends and colleagues complain about forking over spending money to teens who are lounging the summer away. These parents are also concerned that their kids don’t know the value of a dollar.
I’ve yet to discover the perfect guidebook on raising financially responsible children. And while a summer job can help teens learn about money, parents I’ve talked to raise a lot of good questions. How do I know what’s right for my child? Should I encourage — or require — my daughter to get a job, even if she doesn’t want to? What if my son wants to get a job, but I don’t think he’s ready?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but there are three others I’d suggest parents consider as they decide what’s right for their family:
Why do I want my teen to get a job? My husband and I, along with the boys’ mom, had several motives for encouraging our sons to work. We felt it was important for them to start developing good financial habits, starting with understanding what it was like to get a paycheck and to make choices about what to do with their earnings. We also agreed that gaining employment experience would teach them valuable skills. And, recalling an old saying my grandmother often used — “idle hands are the devil’s playground” — we wanted to keep our teenagers occupied and out of trouble while we were off at work. Whatever the reason, parents play an important role in reinforcing the decision and motivating kids to develop good habits and practices.
What does my child need or want? Most teens won’t express a desire to develop good financial habits. They just want cash. Trinity rattled off a list for me of the various things he bought with the money he made from those jobs: “Clothes, dinner, gas, a trip to Colorado and a used car.” It’s not unusual for teens to desire a source of discretionary income that their parents can’t or won’t provide. Some don’t want to ask for money or explain what they’re spending it on. Others get jobs to help sock away savings for a specific goal like college. So what’s a parent’s role? Sometimes it’s as simple as providing perspective and guidance, while also allowing a teen to exert a bit of independence.
Is my child ready for a job? While laws dictate the type and hours minors can work, parents play an important role in assessing whether their kids are ready to handle the responsibility of getting to work on time and answering to others. It’s also important to consider if a summer job could result in undue fatigue or stress, or cause a child to underperform or miss out on other activities. For example, my oldest stepson, Jake, recently told me that his summer job competed with his marching-band practice and got him in trouble a few times — something neither his father nor I were aware of at the time.
So, what’s the takeaway? I asked my stepsons — now in their 20s — if having a summer job helped make them more financially responsible and kept them out of trouble, which were the two main goals their dad and I had had in mind. Their responses were mixed. Trinity replied that, “Working at summer jobs made me more responsible with my spending because I knew that I had worked for that money.” Jake, on the other hand, remembers blowing quite a bit of his summer earnings on video games.
As for whether their summer jobs kept them out of trouble, no one fessed up to anything. I guess some things never change.
De Baca is vice president of wealth strategies at Ameriprise Financial.