The unemployment rate and its various ups and downs has taken its place in the headlines over the years. As the numbers are released, financial analysts interpret what it means and political pundits use the information to make whatever particular argument they happen to be making. Everyday Americans are often left scratching their heads. Mixed in with the unemployment numbers is another statistic that often gets overlooked but has a profound impact on our economy and society in general: teen unemployment. According to this report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for teens between the ages of 16 and 19 was 19.1% in April, more than three times the overall unemployment rate of 6.3%. This is down from 45% in 2000. We can debate all of the reasons for this, but one thing is not arguable: fewer teens are working than a decade ago.
I first began working when I was 12 years old. Like many kids have done to make money over the years, I had a paper route. Getting up at the crack of dawn to go out and deliver papers in harsh Ohio winters certainly was not fun, but the experience was invaluable. I learned about responsibility, getting work done in a timely fashion and that hard work was rewarded with a paycheck every week. I learned to work and save for the things I wanted. As an older teen, I worked at a fast food restaurant, continuing to learn responsibility and financial self-reliance for the things I wanted.
Every teen that doesn't have the opportunity to work when they are young misses the opportunities I had. This isn't to say that not working as a teen automatically dooms you to a life of mooching off of others, but there is something about having a job in those teen years that helps prepare you for a life of working. You learn about showing up on time, tucking in your shirt and doing what you're told. You learn about being respectful of those in charge, whether you like it or not. You learn about working with others, even the difficult ones, because whether you are the CEO of a Fortune 500 company or drive a truck you will work with difficult people. It's as predictable as death and taxes. These things sound simple, but they're vital and becoming increasingly troublesome. As our society evolves and teens communicate with text messages and tweets, learning these basic skills becomes even more important. And fewer teens are learning them.
While there are fewer opportunities for teens to work today for a variety of reasons, the sad truth is that many teens are simply not expected to work. If they want something, their parents pay for it. They get trophies for participating. They get used to a world where their every need or desire is met with little to no effort on their part. We then get surprised when they become young adults with a sense of entitlement and think the world will be delivered to them on a silver platter. It sounds like they have it made, but at the end of the day they're the ones losing out. No matter how much they are pampered as children and teens, they will enter the real world at some point. The real world doesn't care what they want or think they are entitled to. They will be expected to go to work, look professional and get things done without complaining.
I don't pretend to know what the solution to the problem of teen unemployment is. I do know that my experience working as a teen has served me well as an adult. Hopefully, if you are a teen or parent and are reading this, you will take these words to heart.