What It Means for Teens Who Are Going to Work for the First Time

By Tim Elmore

What It Means for Teens Who Are Going to Work for the First Time

I spoke to a Chick-fil-A owner/operator recently who told me a story I almost couldn’t believe. He said he interviewed a sixteen-year-old high school student who was so sharp, he hired her on the spot. Upon getting her uniform from this notable restaurant brand, she promptly walked across the street, interviewed at McDonald’s, and negotiated for a higher hourly wage.

This teen knew she could sell her talent to the highest bidder.

All kinds of fascinating data are surfacing on teens from Generation Z:

  • A sense of entitlement is morphing into a sense of empowerment.                               

The millennials demonstrated higher levels of entitlement than Gen Z at their age. Instead, today’s teens feel very empowered to both go to work earlier and ask for more money than past generations of teens. Because workers are in demand, they negotiate. 

  • A sense of feeling special is morphing into a sense of feeling savvy.

We made millennial teens feel special with all the trophies we gave them a decade ago. For Gen Z—they feel higher levels of agency and even audacity than specialness. They are asking for more pay, more perks, and even flexible hours from employers. 

  • A sense of wanting to play is morphing into a sense of wanting to work.

A majority of millennial teens did not work during their adolescence. Often, parents discouraged work, as they wanted their kids to focus on grades or sports. Today, Gen Z frequently forgoes a four-year college to build work skills on the job. 

The numbers are fascinating.

They Are Stepping Up

Payroll data from more than 200,000 businesses using Gusto show a nationwide trend. In April 2019, teens made up about 2 percent of new hires on their platform, said Gusto’s Luke Pardue. By April 2022, the teen share of new hires had more than quadrupled to 9 percent. Wages grew faster for teens than for any other age group. “What we’re seeing across all industries is teens are stepping up to fill this gap as older workers age out of the workforce or are still unable or unwilling to come back,” Pardue said.  The millennial collapse became the Gen Z rebound. 

Cameron Turner, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, ponders why this is occurring.
“Could the pandemic have been the motivation for this surge in young workers because they were bored at home for so long during quarantine and virtual school and activities?

“Or maybe some got so fed up with their parents, they wanted to work and save up some money so they can enjoy more freedom to do what they want without needing their folks to provide for them,” Cam said. “Maybe some were weary of being stuck under their parents’ noses during the lockdown where they felt trapped at home.

“Or perhaps their family struggled so much financially during the pandemic that they felt a need—even a duty—to help pitch in and provide another source of income for their family. Maybe they needed to work as much as they wanted to work.”

High school teacher Patrick Erwin agrees. “I have observed my students needing to work to help provide. I think that existed before the pandemic but was exacerbated by COVID,” Erwin says. “Kids who are hyper involved in after-school activities were likely trying to fill the ‘boredom gap’ that existed when their activity was taken away. Most of my discussions with kids about their jobs were (based around) trying to work their schedule so they didn’t have to miss rehearsals, practices or concerts. They were learning to balance. Just as much, I think they want to earn money and make their own decisions. That seems to be a driving force. I heard from several: ‘Mr. Erwin, I just want to make some money.’”

How Should We View This?

Some educators, parents, and coaches may see this as troublesome. May I encourage you?

  1. If this is troublesome to you—remember that work probably prepares students for life after graduation better than a classroom does. 
  2. If this is troublesome to you—remember that past generations of students normally worked jobs as teens, and it wasn’t viewed as a penalty or setback. 
  3. If this is troublesome to you—remember that managing income provides a sense of “ownership” to young adults as much as anything else. 
  4. If this is troublesome to you—remember that our workforce is aging, and the entrance of Generation Z is a very healthy “shot in the arm” to the marketplace. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to see less “Help Wanted” signs in retail store windows. It’s time for teens to learn to work where job conditions, shifts, and wages are fair.

What It Means for Teens Who Are Going to Work for the First Time