Slogging on a Saturday

22nd September 2017

Having a part-time job while in education has always been seen a traditional rite of passage for young people. But far fewer teenagers than ever are working, as Jennifer Lipman explains…

I sometimes joke that, as a teenager, I had more disposable income than I do now as a working adult. Unencumbered by mortgage, bills or the cost of the weekly shop, my pockets were heavy with the profits of babysitting and other part-time work. 

That was then. These days, fewer teenagers are likely to have a so-called ‘Saturday job’. A recent report by the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES) found that between 1997 and 2014 the number of 16 to17 year olds studying and working had fallen from almost half to just 18%. More recently, a survey by Education and Employers last January found that only under a fifth of 14 to 16 year olds had undertaken some part-time employment. ONS data backs this up: 35% of students held a part-time job last year, compared with 40.3% 20 years ago.

Why is this, and does it matter if teenagers are not embarking on the employment ladder while in education, or have less pocket money than their parents’ generation? Are they spending all their time on social media or playing on their phones; too busy snapchatting to stock the shelves?

There may be something in that. When there were only a few channels and entertainment largely involved books, magazines or walkmans, maybe more young people sought a part-time job to pass the time. But for most, weekend work was less hobby, more necessity. Do today’s teens simply not need the cash?

The evidence doesn’t bear this out. While pocket money has spiralled, only 12% of the young people surveyed by UKCES gave this reason for not working part time, meaning that for most there is still a financial incentive. Laura-Jane Rawlings, Chief Executive of Youth Employment UK, echoes this, saying that young people tell them they want part-time jobs and are looking for work experience, but struggle finding it. “Most young people want to be able to develop their skills, and earn their own money,” she says. 

What has changed is the wider labour market: now much more formal, with employers concerned about qualifications even for low-skilled roles. It’s telling that a third of young people told Education and Employers they’d have welcomed more help from their schools in securing a part-time job. 

“Locally there are not as many opportunities for part-time work and for young people it can be hard to identify where those opportunities are,” explains Rawlings. “It can often be reliant on who you know: if you have people in your network who can offer opportunities or make introductions.” 

Equally, she says, there are a number of “perceived and real barriers” for employers taking on young people. “Some organisations feel insurance and age of workers is an issue,” she says. “Also some have become more comfortable in hiring older workers for part-time jobs.”

The recession led to a rise in adults working part time; it may be that underemployed adults are taking the temporary jobs that used to be reserved for teenagers. Indeed, while the gig economy may have created opportunities for youths to become Deliveroo drivers, UKCES points out that growth in roles in areas like sales, once taken by young people, has been ‘fairly flat’.  “The changing economy means that there are much less opportunities, such as paper-rounds and shop work,” says Rawlings.

Meanwhile, more young people are studying for longer – up from 984,000 aged 18 to 24 in full-time education in 1992 to 1.87 million in 2016 – meaning that there are greater numbers competing for the same (diminishing) pool of jobs.

The other side of the coin is whether teenagers have as much spare time as previous generations, given the pressures of exams. UKCES found that more than half of those who had not taken a part-time job preferred to concentrate on their studies (or their parents preferred it for them). “There is an element that young people are very focused on exams due to the pressures and influences around them [so] that they do not look for work as much as previous generations,” says Rawlings. As one Mumsnetter noted in a debate on the merits of Saturday jobs, you don’t want your teen taking on too many shifts. “He’ll quickly be exhausted and unable to keep on top of school work.” 

While any number of factors has contributed to the decline in the Saturday job – from increased automisation reducing the type of low-skilled jobs once reserved for teenagers to parents mollycoddling their offspring – perhaps the more interesting question is: does it matter?

For parents, it means kids relying on them for cash, which is, of course, potentially an enormous strain. And without earnings, the worry is that fewer young people are learning the vital life skills of managing money and budgeting.
In the foreword to the UKCES report, Nestlé Chief Executive Dame Fiona Kendrick argued that part-time jobs while at school are crucial. “They made us resilient, taught us how to handle responsibility and also to juggle priorities,” she wrote. “They were the foundations of our future careers.”

Luke Johnson, the former Pizza Express chairman, has said much the same thing, declaring that part-time work leaves youths “better equipped to cope with the vagaries of life” and provides “a sense of freedom and achievement that sitting in a library or lecture theatre lacks”. Reflecting on work as a temporary postman, in a pharmaceutical plant, and as a lab assistant, he said “each role was a different sort of education”.

Yet others hold that there is no major downside to not adding the pressure of work to daily life while still at school or college. The offspring of the rich have never really had to work; it’s arguably desirable that fewer less privileged teenagers are compelled to prioritise part-time work over their studies. They’ll have to join the workforce eventually; if they are financially secure enough at 16 to concentrate on studying and having fun, that’s no bad thing. After all, the retirement age is rising. Those entering the workplace now will be in it for decades longer than their parents, if they leave it at all.

Some say it is a sign of progress – a century ago young people were being sent down coalmines, and few would question this not happening anymore. As the journalist Sathnam Sanghera has written, often “these pleas to send students into the workplace turn into sanctimonious and wrong-headed gloats about how much harder we oldies had it”. 

Yet, as the UKCES report argues, “more must be done to ensure that young people understand the long-term benefits of part-time work”. Employers regularly grouse that graduates arrive in jobs lacking employability skills and ill-equipped for the challenges of working life; from getting on with colleagues to deporting themselves professionally. “Young people tell us they are struggling to find entry level roles after school, as employers are looking for experience even for the very basic of roles,” says Rawlings. 

The corollary is that those who have experienced the workplace before entering it permanently make for better employees and have better prospects. They are up to six percentage points less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training) five years later than those just in education, and projected to earn a premium of 12-15 per cent. 

A Saturday job builds confidence and enables a teenager to learn about what career they want to pursue. “Work experience teaches so many things; how the world of work really works, how to work with a range of people, timekeeping,” says Rawlings. “You can develop communication, teamwork, problem solving skills.”

All things considered, though, plenty of young people are still working part-time, and those who are not aren’t necessarily resting on their laurels. High numbers of young people volunteer regularly – according to the NCVO between 2011 and 2015 the numbers of 16 to 24 year olds giving up their time at least once a month rose by 52 per cent. Many undertake work experience both within and outside the school curriculum, or engage with programmes such as Young Enterprise to boost their employability skills. While today’s teenagers might not have the spending power of their predecessors, that isn’t necessarily a reflection of their work ethic. 

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