Do Summer Jobs Really Keep Teens Out of Trouble?

Jacqueline Burt Cote

teens walkingExpect gangs of broke, bored teens to roam the streets when school lets out -- teen joblessness could hit a record high this summer, which might lead to a spike in crime. Like rebellious teens spending their summer vacations looking for trouble is a new thing?

Don't get me wrong; I agree that the economy is pretty darn bleak when the jobs teens used to compete over, i.e. wearing a paper hat to sell hot pretzels in a food court and folding khakis at the Gap, are all taken by downsized professionals with mortgages to pay. And of course the last thing teens need on their hands is more free time. Historically speaking, however, I don't see how summer jobs ever really kept teens on the straight and narrow.

Working at the mall didn't keep Jennifer Jason Leigh from getting knocked up in Fast Times at Ridgemont High; Cuba Gooding Jr.'s mall gig in Boyz n the Hood was no match for gang violence. Looking back at my own teen years, the main skill acquired by the kids I knew who worked part-time in retail was how to shoplift more effectively. Those who worked in restaurants started drinking before the rest of us, thanks to the "generosity" of older waitstaff.

The only summer jobs that ever seem to really benefit teens unfortunately aren't jobs at all, they're usually internships/apprenticeships that don't pay a wage but do offer truly valuable experience and connections in a field kids presumably have an interest in pursuing. Problem is, to cash-strapped teens, the short-term financial benefits of a burger-slinging gig often seem to outweigh the long-term payoffs of a resume-building internship. And the way things are these days, some families need every available member in the workforce just to get by.

My kids aren't old enough to work yet, but if they were, I think I'd try to steer them in the direction of jobs traditionally meant for teens: Babysitter, camp counselor, lawn-mower. Jobs that, in lieu of building career skills, at least build life skills.

What would your advice be to a job-seeking teen this summer?

Image via milena mihaylova/Flickr

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