More of today’s Gen Z high-schoolers are making their way into the workforce, picking up after school and summer jobs, and reversing a trend of forgoing work when millennials were teens.
At least 250,000 more teenagers are now working compared to before the pandemic, part of a gradual but consequential shift that is boosting employment at restaurants and stores, and changing cultural norms. In all, 37 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds had a job or were looking for one last year, the highest annual rate since 2009, according to Labor Department data.
That pickup follows more than four decades of declines, a pattern that accelerated in the 2000s, Labor Department data shows.
“The teenagers who are here now, they really want to be here,” said Nilo Gonzalez, a pizzeria owner in Albuquerque, who went from having no teens on staff to hiring three, a quarter of his workforce. “They’re energetic and ready to work, which wasn’t really the case with the previous generation of millennials.”
An abundance of jobs, particularly entry-level positions in hospitality and retail, have helped draw teenagers into the labor market. In interviews, high school-age workers cited a number of reasons for working, including financial independence and the opportunity to try new things. Inflation has also been a major factor: Students from lower-income families say they’re working to help their parents cover rent and utilities, while others are using the extra money to pay for the rising cost of gas and car insurance, or outings with friends.
“When the labor market is tight, more teens work,” said Elizabeth Ananat, an economics professor at Barnard College. “When teens hear there are jobs available, they take the jobs.”
Reilly Dunlap started working at a resort gift shop in Traverse City, Mich., just after she turned 16. The high school junior works three or four evenings a week and makes $16 an hour, well above the local minimum wage and enough to cover gas and insurance for her Chevy SUV.
“Having a job gives you a lot of freedom,” Dunlap said, adding that nearly all of her friends also work. “Of course there’s the money. But also it feels good that I can pay for what I need to, that I don’t have to rely on my parents for everything anymore.”
Employers across the country have taken steps to improve starting pay, which has disproportionately benefited younger workers. People between 16 and 24 saw the largest jump in pay last year—9.8 percent, nearly double the increase for all workers, according to an analysis of government data by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Those fast-rising wages have played a role in winning over younger workers. When the city of Tukwila, Wash., near Seattle, raised its hourly minimum wage to $18.99 in July, there was a flurry of new interest from teenagers, according to Jennifer Fichamba, a counselor at Foster High School. Many students at the school tend to work anyway to help their families, but pay boost incentivized more 14- and 15-year-olds, she said. Some took jobs at a nearby shopping mall, at stores like Hollister, H&M and Target, while others work with their parents, cleaning houses or busing tables at restaurants.
“I did see a lot more interest, especially among underclassmen,” Fichamba said. “I was hearing things like, ‘Oh, I can make $20 an hour now. Maybe my dad won’t have to work two jobs any more.'”
The recent uptick in youth employment follows decades of steady declines. The share of teenagers in the labor market has dropped steadily since the late 1970s, when nearly 60 percent of teens worked. Rising school enrollment, combined with national efforts to lower high school dropout rates and a shift toward higher-skilled jobs, have all contributed to the decline.
Plus, high school has become much more demanding: Teens today spend twice as much time on homework than they did in the mid-1990s, leaving them less time for socializing and paid work, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of federal data. Getting into college has become more competitive, too, leading many high-schoolers to prioritize a host of other activities—sports, debate team, even SAT prep—over part-time work.
But the shock of the covid pandemic changed the picture, at least temporarily. As the country reopened after 2020 lockdowns, businesses needed to hire rapidly to keep up with Americans’ insatiable appetite for dining out, shopping and traveling. Employees, though, were tough to come by—millions of service workers had abandoned the industry for better-paying opportunities—forcing employers to tap into a new source of labor: teens.
For high-schoolers, the onslaught of job openings came just as they were finding their footing after months of virtual schooling. Many were eager to get back in the “real world,” high school counselors said, and welcomed the opportunity to work for pay. During last year’s jobs boom, the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds dropped to a 70-year low.
In Wichita, Caleb Newfer, 18, makes $10 an hour scanning and selling tickets at the county zoo. He earns about 20 percent more than he did two years ago, at his first job at a dog boarding facility, and says the extra money has come in handy for gas. He’s also been saving for college and started a retirement account.
“When the pandemic started, I was only 14 but that’s when I started wanting to make money,” he said, adding that he did odd jobs like mowing lawns and helping his grandfather sell model cars on eBay for extra cash. “I had all this free time and wanted to use it.”
Employers are so strapped for workers, especially in service jobs, that many say they are increasingly willing to accommodate high-schoolers’ frenetic schedules, which can change every week depending on exams, extracurricular activities and social commitments. That’s the case for Angielena Muellenberg who employs as many as 10 teenagers at a time at Snowbelt Brewing Co., in Gaylord, Mich., up from one or two before the pandemic.
“These teens have stepped in to fill the shoes of all the people who left during covid,” she said. “They’re a big reason a lot of restaurants have been able to stay open and operating.”
But labor economists warn that working during the high school years can come with risks. Studies have shown that holding a job in high school can contribute to lower grades and less likelihood of graduation, setting up teens for a lifetime of lower earnings and worse employment opportunities.
In Arizona, Connor Naughton, 17, dropped out of high school last year and got a temporary job painting houses for $14.50 an hour. Now he’s studying for both a driver’s license and GED. He’s also applying to local jobs, hoping to get his foot in the door at a movie theater, coffee shop or grocery store.
“I feel good about things,” he said. “There are a good amount of jobs out there. You go to places like Wendy’s or Walmart, and they’re all hiring.”
Teenagers with jobs are also at risk for being asked to work long, late hours that interfere with schoolwork and sleep, especially when employers are understaffed. Since 2020, fast-food companies have illegally scheduled thousands of teenagers to work late and long hours and to operate dangerous kitchen equipment, according to a recent Washington Post analysis of federal data.
This trend is happening as some states are taking steps to loosen child labor protections. Iowa and West Virginia have recently changed laws to allow teens as young as 16 to serve alcohol, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. Others are rapidly rolling back protections for 14- and 15-year-old workers. In Arkansas, for example, young teens no longer need parental approval to get a job, while New Jersey recently ruled that minors can work as many as six hours without a break.
Still, there is overwhelming evidence that some paid work, including summer jobs, can benefit both high-schoolers and communities. Many local governments have poured millions in COVID-related funding into bolstering summer youth employment programs around the country, in hopes of cutting down on crime rates and addressing growing mental health concerns.
That’s creating new opportunities for students beyond the entry-level positions typically available to them. Interest in Wisconsin’s youth apprenticeship program—which offers paid work in a number of industries including finance, manufacturing and health care—has more than quadrupled after the pandemic at Sheboygan South High School, according to school counselor Steve Schneider.
“Kids are realizing they can make money and also get meaningful experience for a career,” he said. “They are very purposeful about seeking work.”
Grace Wang, 18, has been working at a Bay Area boba tea shop for nearly two years. Almost all of her colleagues are fellow high school students with tight schedules. Wang, for example, works just one shift a week, on Sundays, to make time for homework, college applications and basketball practice. Still, she says her barista job fills an important role.
“I want to go into business, and I think it’s important to have retail experience to understand how the service industry works,” she said. “It’s given me a new perspective on work.”