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Working as Teens? Not Gen Z

Working as Teens? Not Gen Z

By Pallabi Munsi


Gen Z is the least likely generation in America's history to work before college.

By Pallabi Munsi

  • It was a rite of passage for previous generations of teenagers. But Gen Z is the least likely generation in America’s history to work before college.
  • They’re picking education over work, but other factors ranging from their unwillingness to drive and the changing nature of the economy also play a role.

Tristan Connell, a teenager from Vermont, was on a Zoom meet-and-greet icebreaker session for incoming Princeton University students when the discussion veered to the defining moments in their very young lives. “And one kid said,” Connell tells me some weeks later, “‘I don’t really know but I guess school? That’s all I really do.’” 

Connell — who loves schoolwork yet has also worked several summer jobs over the years, including assisting a private investigator once — has decided to take a gap year with Princeton going remote amid the pandemic. But to him, “what that guy said kind of sums it all up for a lot of kids these days.”

He’s right.

A Pew Research Center demographic study reveals that Generation Z is far less likely to work as teenagers than their counterparts from earlier generations — and it’s got nothing to do with the current recession.

Only 18 percent of Gen Z teens (15-17) were employed in 2018, compared to 27 percent for millennials in 2002 and 41 percent for Gen Xers in 1986.

It’s easy to think of this statistic as a sign of privilege among Gen Zers — until you remember that they’re the most racially and ethnically diverse demographic in American history.

But the generation is picking education over work in their teens. According to the Pew study, Gen Zers are on track to becoming the most-educated generation in the country’s history, with a higher percentage going to college than any of their predecessors.

Brianna Saavedra

There are other reasons too. Gen Zers are more picky about the kind of jobs they’re willing to take on, says Meghan Grace, a researcher on the demographic who has published several books on the generation. “They’re going to be looking for flexibility, they’re going to be looking for jobs that are enjoyable and that they can be passionate about,” she says. “And if those don’t exist, they’ll create their own company or product and service — all on their own terms.”

The availability of jobs for teenagers itself is a factor too — you’ll find older people working at takeaway joints today than you would have a generation ago. With the pandemic leaving 30 million Americans unemployed, that gap between the number of people seeking jobs and the numbers of jobs available will only grow wider. Connell says most of his friends do work but that could be because he lives in a ski resort town with more jobs for teenagers than elsewhere.

Gen Zers are also far less likely to own a driving license than previous generations: 25 percent of 16-year-olds in 2017 had one, compared to 50 percent in 1983. That hobbles their ability to get around for work. “I personally don’t want to intervene with my family’s schedule as they are already busy enough, and it would be hard on them if I asked them to pick me up or drop me off at work,” says Brianna Saavedra, a 17-year-old from American Canyon, California. She wants to get her driving license before taking up a job.


A man wearing a face mask walks past a “Now Hiring” sign in front of a store amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Source Getty

To be sure, many Gen Zers continue to view working in their teens as valuable experience. Gabriella dela Vega, 14, says she has thought about taking up work when she starts her junior year. “I just think it would be a great experience for me to help get me ready when I graduate high school.” 

That’s precisely what prompted Amy Dekroon, a 16-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, to take a job as a shift manager at a Wendy’s. She’s balancing school and work. “I come back home after school and leave for work after an hour or so.” 

Gabriela dela Vega

Yet Connell agrees with Grace that what constitutes work itself has changed for many Gen Zers. “A lot of Gen Z kids have shifted away from the broad suites that defined work,” he says. “I think I wouldn’t take up just any job to try and be in the competitive rat race because the standard of living matters a lot.”

That trend is only expected to increase amid — and following — the pandemic, as remote and freelance work increasingly displaces traditional white- and blue-collar jobs, says Grace.

Still, education possibly remains the single biggest factor in the reluctance of Gen Zers to work as teenagers. Saavedra refers to the volume of schoolwork and college applications that are her priority in her senior year.

And if Dekroon had to pick between work and school, it’s clear what she would choose. “If a time comes when I can’t balance it out, I’ll have to leave my job,” she says. “Because school is my priority.”

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