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Jobs Are Everywhere. So Why Aren’t More Young People Working?


“It’s just hard to find people who will show up, you know?” I was searching for baked beans in the grocery store when my ears perked at the start of a familiar conversation.

The man who made the comment, I surmised from previous dialogue, oversaw construction work. He was chatting with a colleague he had run into in the aisle.

“Fifteen bucks an hour only buys so much. You can’t make people show up.”

The porch-sitting retiree grumbling that “kids just don’t want to work these days” has become somewhat of a cliché, but there’s some truth in it. The struggle to find and keep workers, particularly for low-skilled or manual labor, is a complaint I’ve heard and read about from employers across the state and across industries, from food service, to chemical plants, to construction. This, despite Washington state’s high minimum wage of $12 an hour and Seattle and Seatac’s minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Advocates for minimum wage hikes have sometimes argued that higher entry-level wages would attract people back into the workforce. But employers are struggling not just to find and retain quality employees, but get even low-performing workers to stick around.

These jobs most often suit young people, as the name “entry-level” implies. Despite hundreds of thousands of jobs created over the last several years, summer employment for teens is only just over 34.6 percent this year. It’s down from 51 percent in 2000, and, most notably, far lower than recession levels at any point in the five preceding decades.

Employment for 16-24 year olds is only 56.2 percent, and labor force participation for 20-24 year olds as of July is 75.7 percent, down 8.1 points from its high 30 years ago and below what it was at the same time of year in ‘09, in the midst of the Great Recession. This doesn’t only apply to the non-college-educated, either. According to the Harvard Business Review, the unemployment rate for recent college graduates is higher than it was pre-recession.

The Problem Isn’t Me, It’s You

Conservatives have argued that high minimum wages are pricing inexperienced and immature teens out of the workforce. That makes a good deal of sense, particularly in cities with a $15 an hour minimum wage, but a closer look at the figures seems to support the anecdotal evidence that young people often just don’t want to work hard—or even work at all.  That’s a problem not just for employers, but for young people themselves.

Having “to show up at the same time every day” is a real complaint from a flaky employee that a manager relayed to me—as if the very basics of keeping a job were too strenuous a demand. The same manager also joked that his other business, a restaurant, runs on a “7-strike” policy for no-shows and tardiness.

Other standards of professionalism are also being relaxed in a tight overall job market, with many companies no longer screening for marijuana in an effort to onboard more employees.

According to 2018 NBC report, “Anecdotal reports indicate that types of employers who historically have drug-tested for pot use among job applicants, like nursing homes who need aides, hotels looking to add housecleaning staff, and restaurants trying to hire cooks and servers, are dropping this pre-employment screening in order to fill positions.”

Some business people argue drug testing is “an artificial barrier” to employment. However you see it, though, the reality is that employers are lowering their standards just to hire people who might at least show up.

Please Bring Your Work Ethic to Work

Work ethic is not a top priority for young adults, if the constant whining about the “burden” of student debt hasn’t clued you in. Some 22-year-olds fresh out of college and loaded with debt would rather spend the afternoon dressing their near-empty resume in buzz words like “detail-oriented” and “results-driven” than snag an unprestigious job immediately to demonstrate hard work and responsibility.

They would rather have a leisurely extended stay at their parents’ than try to hack it in the big expensive city where they chose to attend college (but to which they nevertheless wish to return). Worse, they may turn up their noses at anything outside their “passion,” holding out hope their careers as Instagrammers will take off any day now.

The business people I’ve heard from are struggling not just to grow, but to keep the operations they already have going, and it’s not just because the demand for labor is high. It’s because the level of work ethic is dangerously low.

That’s a pity, and not just for frustrated hiring managers. The reality is that even “menial” low-skill and entry-level positions award immediate cash flow, the chance to learn how to cooperate with others, show up on time, follow directions (an underestimated skill), focus on tasks (an increasingly rare ability), learn new practical skills, and potentially climb into management. They’re more than a cover-up for gaps in your resume.

Hard work in your early years and stewarding your dollars carefully, no matter the job, is going to put you ahead. Working hard might alienate some of your slacker coworkers, but it builds trust and respect with your managers. It might mean missing nights out at the bar, but it also means you’re the go-to choice when a higher, better-paying position opens at the company, and that you spend less in addition to earning more.

This Is the Time to Bust Your Behind

There is no better time to get into entry-level positions, especially outside major cities. A lot of young adults don’t seem to realize how easy they have it right now. When I got out of college (a top state school from which I graduated with honors) in a recovering economy, the entry-level job market for college grads was extremely competitive.

Trying to maintain steady employment no matter the cost to my pride taught me a lot.

One small employer I interviewed with, in the least glamorous part of the city, received 200 resumes to an administrative assistant position. Two hundred. I did a trial run at a downtown firm in which I blistered and bloodied my feet traipsing through downtown running errands as a personal assistant (a job I knew didn’t fit my personality or skills very well, but I was desperate).

A dozen interviews down the line and with graduation fast approaching, nothing I was “qualified for” had panned out. So I applied at a big box office supply store and worked for $10.10 an hour while holding my slightly lower-paying job on campus a little longer. My husband, straight out of the same university, worked at Taco Bell as an assistant manager.

Later, when I was laid off from a well-paying administrative position, I accepted a job that paid significantly less than my previous one, because there was no way I was going to let my student loans go into delinquency, or let my husband support me lounging around the house.

Trying to maintain steady employment no matter the cost to my pride taught me a lot. Chiefly, that hard work doesn’t get you everything you want, but it gets you pretty darned far. It teaches discipline and how to make do with what you have—and be grateful for it. It teaches grit.

The firm that fired me? I worked my tail off and took no breaks while working there, not even to eat. It was my most painful failure to date, but it taught me humility and how to persevere through rejection.

People Usually Don’t Pay You to Play Around

I’m not saying Gen Z and younger millennials shouldn’t pursue their passions. Absolutely they should, and the ability to freelance and sell products so easily via online platforms makes it easier than ever for creative, inventive people to make a living at the intersection of what they love and what they’re good at.

But avoiding low-skill or lower-paying entry level work because it’s beneath you, slacking off or flaking out on your employer just because you don’t “need” the job, hurts you as much as it does them. The poor attitudes and habits it breeds and its damage to your reputation will follow you for years, and you’ll fare even worse in a down economy.

It’s wise to work your ‘day job’ until your passion or side gig is so successful you can’t maintain both.

The blame for leagues of entitled young slackers extends to those who taught them. Teachers and parents told them, If you’re doing what you love, then it’s not really “work”—and so the goal is ultimately to not “work.” That’s wrong, and it’s setting young workers up for failure.

Not only is it perfectly dignified and gratifying to practice a trade like plumbing or construction for your entire career, but if you want a career you “love,” it usually means you have to work even harder. Making it in your chosen line of work isn’t just about taking risks, but making sure your bills are covered so you don’t fall so hard that you have to push investing in your passions and taking more risks even farther off into the future.

The great news is that because the road between side gigs and full-time gigs is smoother than ever, you don’t have to drop your “day job” or avoid getting one for fear it will get in the way. It’s wise to work your “day job” until your passion or side gig is so successful you can’t maintain both—unless you have a spouse who can support you while you throw your back into something with a long ramp up time or more risk (one of the many perks to marriage, particularly young marriage).

Good economies don’t last forever, but the lessons of hard work do. So be grateful, lay off the pot, and embrace a steady job. You can still follow your dreams on the side, and when they do finally take flight, you’ll stay grounded in a work ethic that will get you through good times and bad.