As we approach Labor Day 2017, I’m reminded of the purpose and significance of the American worker whom we honor on this day, as well as the scarcity of opportunities our children have to learn about working.
First, Labor Day itself. It was created somewhere around 1882 here in the U.S. by a labor union to call attention to the social and economic achievements of the American worker. It’s celebrated now on the first Monday in September, and on the same day in Canada, to honor the contributions workers have made to the strengths, prosperity and well-being of our countries.
We have parades and speeches. A lot of outdoor activities and a general good time.
I’m reminded of my first employment as a worker when I was 12 or so and got my first bike. I delivered Mahjong tiles and annual rules for my mother to supply all her neighbor students. Then it was on to deliver for a local butcher shop. From high school on I enjoyed a variety of working experiences; over Christmas I delivered printed holiday cards to fancy N.Y. department stores, then it was on to camp waiter, dishwasher, and the big time as a resort bus buy. Along the way I traveled chain retail store routes for the Silent Watchman Co. to pick up last week’s store opening and closings and reset the clocks for next week.
You are probably thinking about all the early jobs you had—and what you learned from each.
As others following this trending theme have noted, fewer kids are working these days. They aren’t gaining the skills that come from those first jobs until they’re in their 20s, which goes a long way to explaining the millennial attitudes showing up in the workplace. It puts them at a tremendous disadvantage when they start their real careers.
Some of the on-the-job training is obvious. You have to show up on time and actually do the work, or you risk getting fired. Such rules can be new to people whose only commitments were in school, where the institution is required to keep you at least through age 18 as long as you want to hang around.
Then there’s the issue of your boss.
In one of my first jobs, my supervisor was a man about 45 years old. He had attained the rank of manager of this small operation. This was his sole means of support. Even at my young age, I recognized his working life had plateaued at a very modest level. But my trajectory—presumably through high school, then college and beyond—compared with his didn’t matter one bit.
What counted was that he knew how to run the office and my job was to show up and follow his instructions. Period! This wasn’t a democracy, or even a meritocracy. It was an autocracy, and the manager of the place set the rules as he saw fit. If I wanted to remain employed, I had to work within the rules.
On the plus side, I wasn’t always lumped with my co-workers, as was the case in school. There were no “group projects” at work. If I did well, I was rewarded with continued employment and extra shifts. If my co-workers chose to goof off or show up late, they were fired. Each of us was assessed on our individual merits.
And the education didn’t stop at the front door. When I received my first paycheck, it took me a while to figure out who FICA was, and why he got so much of my money. Then I had to deal with opening a bank account, depositing and writing checks, and, eventually, W2-s and taxes.
It wasn’t the coddled world of education. Employment could be mind-numbingly boring, fast-paced, infuriating, rewarding, and even depressing. But learning to navigate the workplace early allowed me to develop interpersonal skills and understand employment dynamics long before I started my career. Apparently I wasn’t alone.
After spiking above 25% after the downturn, unemployment among teens from 16 to 19 dropped back near its long-term average of 16%.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Unemployment statistics only apply to those who want to work. A better way to understand the change that took place is by considering the labor force participation rate of those from 16 to 19 years old. This statistic counts how many people are either working or looking for work compared with the entire population in that age range.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, more than half of all teens were in the labor force. But since 2000, things have changed dramatically. Only about one-third of our teens are either working or looking for work.
I don’t think all the others are sitting at home playing video games, although some certainly are. Many are probably involved in sports, camps, band, or a myriad of other activities. That’s great, and I know that such interests are beneficial. But there’s a world of education that can’t be obtained anywhere but in the workforce, and waiting until your 20s just slows down the process for the workers as well as the employers that have to deal with them.
And now we have another hurdle to teen employment—rising minimum wage.
Forcing companies to pay more will only shrink the limited employment opportunities that are available to this age group.
As more cities and states increase what employers must pay at the bottom rung of the work ladder, it will make more sense for companies to automate. We’ll see more kiosks for ordering at fast-food restaurants and more tap-to-pay systems at retail stores. Such changes might keep companies competitive, but they’ll also limit the employment opportunities for teens, so even fewer of them will have the menial jobs of our youth that paid so little, but taught so much.