Why Teens Shouldn’t Work Fast Food or Retail

Should teens work fast food or retail in high school? I did and I don’t think so. I have fond memories from my days as a burger flipper, sandwich assembler, and cashier, but, these are three positions I don’t want my own children to have. Ever. Let me tell you why we need to rethink teen employment.

My friend Brian put together How to Rock Your Money: A Teenagers Guide to Financial Success. This workbook is a perfect companion for a personal finance class or something to do in your free time (I know, I was a teen once too and I now have my own family) that’s something different than streaming Netflix or playing games.

I have gone through the guide myself and believe this is a great starter to thinking about how money works and adding life purpose. I wish I would have known some of these lessons sooner in life.

Why Should Teens Work Fast Food?

Let’s do a brief review of the jobs I held as a high school and college student:

  • Newspaper Route (1 year)
  • McDonald’s (5 years)
  • College gift shop cashier (1 year)

All three of these jobs helped me build a small savings and (more importantly to a high schooler) money to pay for car insurance and put gas in the tank. I can still remember walking the sidewalks each morning

Oh yeah, from a non-financial perspective I also learned the value of work, honoring commitments, asking the boss at least two weeks early for a day off, and having a good time with co-workers when business was slow.

I flipped burgers and manned the cash register because those were the most common jobs available. They were hiring and I was ready to start working immediately. It also helped that I had a somewhat flexible schedule and could walk to all of these jobs. I did drive to McD’s since it was two miles away and I often closed.

Why Teens Should Work Elsewhere

What are the benefits of working fast food or at a retail store again?

  • Steady paycheck
  • Teaches responsibility
  • More productive than playing video games

That’s all fine and dandy, except that’s where the upsides virtually end. Unless you plan on becoming a store manager eventually, you will probably never cook a burger on a clamshell grill or work a cash register again. In short, life skills are lacking in fast food or retail jobs.

And, these once-ubiquitous teen jobs are disappearing as stores close and entry-level positions are automated to further reduce corporate overhead. While several factors influence this stat, only 20% of teens held in the summer of 2017. That’s the lowest percentage since 1948 when “modern America” as we know it came into existence after World War II.

While happy to see fewer teens working in retail and fast food, I don’t want them turning into couch potatoes either.


Teens Need to Think Outside The Box

As a Millennial, I hear how we are the most spoiled generation, and as a result, lazy and only seeking instant gratification. While I won’t disagree with this statement entirely, I think my fellow Millennials need to instill more creativity in their children than our forebearers.

In my opinion, four-year college degrees are overemphasized and we need a renaissance of trade schools and entrepreneurship. Yes, I think every teen should study Mike Rowe when thinking about the future and challenge the current societal views on college and work.

I can testify that skills I learned as a teenager can still make money as an adult. The more unique the skills, the more money you can potentially earn.

For example, anybody can flip a burger but how many people can repair a car, install new flooring, weld a joint, or design computer graphics? Not as many.

Now’s the Time to Be Your Own Boss

I’m not saying this to be idealistic, but the teenage years are the best time to try careers and income streams that are either risky or don’t pay well. When you have a family or a mountain of student loan debt, you trade risk and future potential rewards for immediate financial security.

To channel this inspiration, I recommend watching Generation: Freedom. It’s a 90-minute documentary that interviews several successful business starters with online or physical businesses.

My Experience with Life Skills

I learned some valuable lessons in fast food and retail, but, I didn’t realize I was almost “pigeonholed” until I quit my job for what turned into one year. In 2015, I left my lucrative job of seven years as an operations supervisor for a Fortune 300 company.

The only problem is that my new job fell through after three weeks and I was unemployed. My first plan was to submit an application at McDonald’s (after all it’s what I did in high school), but, $8.50 an hour doesn’t go to far when you have a family to feed and bills to pay.

Instead, I looked at the other skills I had that were more in-demand and had a higher earning potential. For example, I can speak Spanish, write a good story, earned a college degree, was a supervisor for seven years, and also helped build two houses.

Today, I’m a freelance writer who also teaches Spanish. I’ve also tutored and worked on remodel projects as a side hustle to bring in some extra cash while helping friends and their families.


Teach Your Teen Life Skills

Since I don’t want my own children to flip burgers or work retail as adults and be forced to take the first job that pays because they are unskilled for the 21st century, my wife and I plan on teaching them to be entrepreneurs. This doesn’t mean they need to be self-employed like we are, but, I want them to be prepared for life.

Here are a few ideas you might consider:

  • Babysitting
  • Pet Sit/Walk Dogs (Some adults make $100,000+ from this)
  • Run a Produce Stand
  • Woodworking
  • Auto Repair
  • Car Detailing, Waxing, and Washing
  • Mow Lawns and Landscaping
  • Shovel snow from driveways (or plow parking lots)
  • Graphic Design
  • Starting a Blog

Recently, my wife and I have begun focusing on making money online in our free time. We periodically buy a video course from  Udemy to learn new skills from other successful professionals. For example, my wife started selling clothes on Poshmark so we purchased that video course for $12 recently. They even have several courses to teach teen entrepreneurs.

Udemy Tip: While many Udemy courses often run for $200, they frequently run specials that drop the price to $10 or $12 throughout the year. Plus, you can get 40% cashback when you shop through Giving Assistant.

What I Tell My Teen Students

I have the luxury of talking with a group of teenagers on an almost daily basis. When the opportunity is there, I tell them the same advice mentioned in this article. And, I tell them my personal story and how I would do a few things differently if I was a teenager again.

In a nutshell, here are a few nuggets I share with them:

  • A four-year degree isn’t essential to earning a high income
    • Two family members without a college degree earn more than we do
  • The best time to start a micro-business is as a teen when mom and dad still pay most of your bills
    • You can fail and try something new without the pressure of having to feed a family or pay rent
  • Look into making money online by creating or selling something, anything


Am I a little fanatical about teens not working in fast food or retail? I’ll let you be the deciding vote. Teens can learn the value of work without flipping burgers or work a cash register, and, they get life skills that will benefit them for the rest of their life!

Would you change anything in your teen years to have a better employment situation today?
Do you think teens should work fast food and retail or pursue something else instead? 

14 thoughts on “Why Teens Shouldn’t Work Fast Food or Retail”

  1. Two of my three teens are working part-time jobs at a casual restaurant and I think it’s great. Yes, I would prefer them to be building something of their own, but that’s not for everyone. It teaching them responsibility, time management, and, customer service skills. The one thing I find valuable is they are working alongside other teenagers who are in college and they are beginning to build a network outside of their normal circle of friends. I’m still encouraging them to pursue other ideas and hustles to make money but for now, a part-time job is getting it done.

    • Networking is HUGE. You never know which relationships you make as a teenager will turn into a lifelong relationship. As you mentioned, building something isn’t for everybody. I personally think restaurants or anything is better than nothing at all as a teenager.

  2. As you know, we totally agree with you and have already taught our oldest (a senior in high school) some serious entrepreneurial skills. I think fast food jobs can be good from the standpoint of they teach you to appreciate what you have when you work a grunt job, and I think all work is admirable. But I do want my kids to learn valuable skills that can always be used to make in income. I think it’ll serve them much better in the long run.

    • We need all positions to make the world turn. Very true and you bring up a good point. I don’t want my children to think fast food or other “less than desirable” work is beneath them. I greatly appreciate my time working as a high schooler. Everybody needs to start somewhere and you do learn that you need to hustle in the restaurant business to be a good worker. My manager was one of my references for my first post-college job. No matter what you do, work hard.

  3. I plan to teach my children how to hustle while they are young. I mean, they are going to be with me while I go out in search of deals so I think they will pick up on it.

    I am not opposed to them working in a job such as fast food or retail, at least they can find out that it is probably not something they want to do for the rest of their life.

    • That’s a great plan. Children observe so much through action. I even notice that with our 5-month old as she watches us and her big sister.

      I don’t want my children to have a condescending attitude toward fast food or retail. There are certain stores and jobs (i.e. paper route) I will not let them work because of my experience. But, they might enjoy what my wife and I didn’t at McD’s, Chick Fil-A, or another store. Plus, there are more of those jobs (at the moment) than some better paying ones and it can be an experience to put on their resume if nothing else.

  4. I worked at two pizza shops in high school and I really wouldn’t change a thing. I know it won’t happen for everyone, but I made a few very close friends from those jobs, and it absolutely made me appreciate hard work and the value of the dollar (cliche but very, very true). I think most teenagers should work at a restaurant at least for a short period of time.

    • A co-worker of mine says the same thing about how everybody should work in a restaurant for at least three months. I can agree with him as you will meet all kinds of people and learn customer service with a smile, how to work quickly, teamwork, and how you hustle for a relatively small amount of money.

      I don’t want to sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, but, I don’t want teens to think their “only” employment options are retail or restaurants.

  5. Working for an employer (other than parent or relative) helps an adolescent learn responsibility, hard work, some money management skills, understanding on a simple level how a business works and hopefully appropriate employee behavior. It also taught my nephew to get further education when he realized he didn’t want to spend his future at a chain burger place. Two pickles, one squirt of mustard and catsup and no deviation. Not so glamorous and gave him the impetuous to get a degree beyond high school. He is now successful with his own business!

    • You bring up a good point, Wendy, that sometimes separation from a parent or family is good for children as others can foster and build skills their parents simply cannot as effectively. It’s encouraging to hear your child is a successful business owner.

      As any parent will attest, I want “the best” for my children and if I can help them skip a step in employment, why not?

      With that said, I learned within my first week or two at McDonald’s that I’d be happy to move onto bigger and better things when the time came. Although I worked the similar nights and weekends schedule with my first professional job, I made triple what I earned per hour in fast food. At first, I thought it was a dream that somebody would pay that much to work the same hours. Both of those jobs have reinforced the notion of self-employment for my wife and I. Yes, we have to hustle more than traditional employees in some regards, but, in other ways we have much more flexibility and freedom than with a corporate job.

  6. I think working retail really teaches many skills. Selling, marketing, merchandising, interacting with people on a possible rapid-fire basis, and more. I think the selling part is most powerful – practically every job on earth involves selling of some sort. And while I know you made the caveat if they -didn’t- pursue management, but I have to say there are many places you can move up into management and make decent money. I was tickling $100k/yr as a manager for RadioShack in the last decade working less than 50 hours/week. My sales people at the time were making $14+/hr. When you have the option to get paid what you -earn- via commission, it’s a very eye-opening experience!

    • You bring up a really good point about incentives. I would recommend my children to be a waiter/waitress before being on the kitchen staff because you can earn tips and earn more than the prevailing hourly wage. We all have to start somewhere, and it doesn’t matter what you do, if you can apply yourself to be better than these jobs might not be bad. It’s just that too many kids (and adults) just want to do the bare minimum, punch the clock, and work just hard enough to get a pay raise. That might sound a little bit harsh, but, there’s a reason there are few managers that can make $100k a year while the regular hourly workers only make $14/hr. Plus, there are fewer managers than employees.

      I had considered climbing the ladder in fast food, but, my store manager steered me away from it since you have to get beyond the store manager side to enjoy the real perks. The time investment wasn’t worth it since I had student loans to repay the base salary for a floor manager was only $20,000 to start. My other non-restaurant offers were anywhere from $35,000 to $51,000.

  7. I think high schools and colleges should require students to go on different internships each year to learn different life skills.

    • I agree, even if it’s only for a semester in their sophomore or junior year so they can work in the summer back home if they have too. An internship in college is what helped me decide what not to do. It stunk at the time not doing what to do for work, but, it was the best long-term decision.


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