Parenting Traps

Never been paid

What teens are missing in a lousy economy.

By Mark Pothier
May 2, 2010

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My wife, Elizabeth, runs a graphic design business out of our home, but this summer she will take on a second job: Keeping our 14-year-old daughter busy.

Like other kids her age, Laura places a high value on establishing her independence. Problem is, she can’t afford the price. We pay for occasional trips to the movie theater, ice skating, or visits to an attraction such as the Museum of Science. But our budget doesn’t always satisfy her expectations, and birthday checks from relatives aren’t enough to cover the difference. Another traditional teenage revenue source – baby-sitting – is hard to come by in our suburban neighborhood.

Legally, Laura is now old enough to work, with restrictions on hours and the type of occupation (heavy machinery, office tower window-washing, and cattle slaughtering are out). Realistically, with the unemployment rate still scraping 10 percent, she won’t be bringing home a paycheck any time soon.

In the summer of 2000, the percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds working nationwide was in “the low 50s,” according to Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit workforce development agency. Last summer, it was closer to 30 percent. For younger teens, the numbers have “fallen off the charts,” Sullivan says. “We don’t even measure them anymore.” He cites several reasons for the decline: adults taking jobs once held by teens, immigrants entering the workforce, and technology. As a result, he says, teenagers are “not learning the lessons of paid work that we all credit for who we are.” The pay-for-chores option, Sullivan points out, is no substitute for workplace experience.

But even if she’s broke, Laura won’t be sentenced to a summer of complete boredom. She’s planning to take dance classes, and we will be going on a family vacation. Also, we live near parks, an air-conditioned library, and a long strip of public beach. Many unemployed teens don’t have those pleasant options to fill their days.

And no matter what happens between the last day of school and Labor Day, Laura’s job prospects will eventually get better. The economy is cyclical. By the time she graduates from college, opportunities will surely be plentiful. At least that’s what I’m going to tell my wife during those long, long days of summer.

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