Summer Jobs: Then and Now

June 27, 2018 · CLASSMATES FUN

Do you remember your first real summer job?

We’re betting you do. And you probably have a good story or two about that introduction to the working world.

Would it surprise you to know that most teens today won’t have stories like that when they’re grown up?

Back in the 1970s, almost 56% of U.S. teenagers worked during the summer months – slinging burgers, mowing lawns, bagging groceries, whatever job was available. The work wasn’t always was almost never glamorous. But you’d end the summer with a sense of accomplishment, increased independence, and some financial freedom.

Flash forward several decades. Only about 30% of generation Z had summer jobs in 2014. That’s a pretty major downward shift.

There are multiple reasons for this: fewer entry-level jobs, more emphasis on unpaid internships and other pre-college preparation, and less free time, to name a few.

The bottom line: Far fewer teens are looking for – and landing – summer jobs than in decades past.

What about the kids who do find employment? We have a feeling that their summer work experiences are pretty different from what ours were…

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Most desirable summer jobs

Then: In decades past, there were a few jobs that were especially popular. Were you fortunate enough to have held one of these coveted positions?

  • Scooping ice cream (and giving free cones to friends) at the local 31 Flavors
  • Taking tickets at the movie theater (and getting to watch scary movies without your parents having to know about it)
  • Serving as lifeguard at the community pool (and getting a killer tan in the process)

Now: We’re guessing here, but we imagine that anything involving social media or the tech world would be a pretty awesome job for a teen today. That said, everybody still loves ice cream!

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Landing that 3-month gig

Then: You’re walking down the street with a few of your friends (or, heaven forbid, your parents), and you see a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of the local diner or travel agency (remember those?). Your buddy (or parent) nudges you and says, “Check that out. You should apply.” So you walk in and express your interest — in person.

Now: Jobs are much trickier to land today than they used to be (and not just for teenagers). While applying in person may still work in certain instances, it’s definitely not the norm. Besides, today’s teens don’t wander around their home towns as much as we did. An email inquiry and/or help from a family connection has probably helped a lot of modern teens get their start.

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The at-work mindset:

Then: While we’re not saying that yesterday’s teens lacked a good work ethic, we will say that, a lot of the time, a summer job was simply a means to an end: more money in the bank (or in your pocket, for those who couldn’t manage to save much!). You were willing to put up with a lot for that paycheck. Sometimes this also meant that you didn’t take your job all THAT seriously.

Now: As college gets increasingly competitive, teens (and their parents) have to start thinking about applications — and what will impress admissions offices — early on. So a paycheck isn’t always the most important consideration. Job responsibilities and tasks actually matter. The same goes for those teens who plan on jumping right into a career directly after high school.

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A typical day

Then: Ride your bike to the movie theater after school. Spend the first half hour flirting with the junior from the neighboring high school, who works at the concessions counter (only between taking tickets, of course). During breaks, you compare notes with your friend, who’s on duty as the other ticket taker (you applied for your jobs at the same time). Chat with moviegoers. Look at your watch approximately 17 times before it’s time to clock out.

Now: The teen worker gets dropped off at their workplace by a parent. The summer job may be an entry-level position at a company that will be targeted post-graduation or perhaps involves responsibilities that will look good on a college transcript. Either way, work is taken a bit more seriously than in generations past. Breaks are usually spent texting.

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Worst part

Then: Having to wear a terrible uniform (especially if your crush showed up) was definitely a downer. But even if you got to wear street clothes, you might have had to face another awful task: cleaning the bathrooms.

Now: Losing precious hours of free time (since the average teen today is overscheduled).

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Best part

Then: Getting that first paycheck at the end of the week!

Now: Making professional connections that will be useful in the future.


For more reminiscing on this topic, check out A Look Back at Summer Jobs As Seen In the Movies and What We Miss Most About Our High School Summer Jobs.