In August 1988, after weeks of practice, I created the perfect Mr Whippy ice cream. I was 14 and I had a Saturday job in a cafe. When the sun shone I’d get to lean out of the serving hatch, chat to passers-by and sell ice creams. Rarely have strawberry sauce and sugar sprinkles been so lovingly applied to such gravity-defying cornets.
Go to your local cafe this Saturday and the chances are you won’t be served by an over-enthusiastic 14 year-old. Figures released to the BBC this week, under the Freedom of Information Act, show the number of teenagers with part-time jobs has declined markedly in recent years. Businesses wanting to employ children under the age of 16 need to apply for a local authority work permit. In 2012, 29, 498 permits were issued but by 2016 this had fallen to 23,071. Other statistics confirm the trend: a 2015 report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that in 1996, 42 per cent 16 and 17 year-olds juggled a part-time job alongside their school or college work compared to only 18 per cent in 2014.
Even when it was raining and the ice cream hatch remained closed, I loved my Saturday job. I liked the freedom that came with having my own money but most of all I liked being treated as an adult. The harder I worked, the more other members of staff forgot I was a kid and treated me as an equal. Being allowed to sit in on conversations about nightclubs, wayward boyfriends and making ends meet was an initiation into adulthood. So, why don’t today’s teenagers want this?
It can’t be that they don’t need the money. Middlesbrough, where I grew up, regularly tops deprivation league tables yet it has seen one of the sharpest declines in the number of working teenagers. In 2011, 101 work permits were issued for 13 - 16 years-olds in Middlesbrough but this fell to only 7 in 2016. Some experts have suggested today’s youngsters are more anxious about passing exams and so spend more time on school work than previous generations. Certainly more children report suffering from stress today and many point to academic expectations as a cause. However, while I’m sure teenagers who spend eight hours on a Saturday studying do exist, I’m yet to meet one.
Middlesbrough council sensibly points to changing consumer behaviour - fewer people reading newspapers means less need for paper boys and girls, the gateway into employment for many a teenager. But other things are different today, too.
As the number of working teenagers has fallen, the overall employment rate grown. Today, record numbers of adults are in work but wages, especially for the low paid, remain stagnant. Twenty years ago, among the low paid, only one man in 20 worked part time but this has now risen to one in five. In-work benefits mean people are now better off employed part time than not at all.
In areas with few employment opportunities it’s likely that jobs once done by children on a Saturday - shelf stacking in supermarkets and serving up cups of coffee - are increasingly being taken on by adults working part-time. Add to this the increasing number of university students and competition for weekend work becomes fierce.
A heightened sense of risk accompanies any activity involving children nowadays. Everyone who works or volunteers with children needs to undergo a DBS (Disclosure or Barring Service) check to ‘prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children.’ Such processes don’t stop children having Saturday jobs but they add to a perception that employing children is more complex and potentially risky than employing adults.
Employers, parents and teachers alike treat young teenagers as vulnerable and in need of protection rather than as apprentice adults capable of hard work and keen to take on responsibilities. As a result, teenagers come to see themselves as children. Saturday jobs might be harder to come by, but for those determined enough there are still opportunities. But fighting for a job becomes more difficult if you’ve been taught to see yourself as vulnerable.
The declining number of teenagers with Saturday jobs should concern us. School assemblies and workshops can never substitute for the confidence and resilience that comes from having a job and adult responsibilities. In taking the focus off school work for one day a week and providing youngsters with some practical skills, Saturday jobs must also be far better at alleviating exam stress than the colouring books and petting zoos now wheeled out in many universities each exam season. Saturday jobs can also be a great source of inspiration: after two years I got bored with Mr Whippy and decided to pass my exams so I’d never have to work in a cafe again.