A Professor Explains Why Your Summer Job Might Make You Rich One Day

It feels like you're wasting your life for barely any money, but a new study shows it'll pay off down the road.

All you want is to have fun with your friends while school’s out, but you’re stuck inside flipping burgers, scooping ice cream or collecting movie tickets, all the while getting yelled at by some insane manager or customer.

As the U.S. economy recovers, teenagers are getting hired again by the hundreds of thousands. Even wealthy parents such as Barack and Michelle Obama, David and Victoria Beckham, and Sting (and…um…Mrs. Sting) are encouraging their teens to work minimum-wage gigs. Because you can’t always sell the movie rights to your blog.

If you’re stuck behind a counter, look at the bright side: You’ll make a lot more cash over your lifetime than the slackers who sit around playing video games from June ’til August, according to a new study of 250,000 15- to 25-year-olds from the University of British Columbia. We called up lead researcher Dr. Marc-David Seidel to explain how even a crappy summer job can potentially make it rain down the road.

It seems a little obvious that people who are workaholics in high school will be workaholics as adults — or is there another explanation?
That’s part of it, but the more important part is time-management skills — being able to balance between work, school and family demands will make them ready to succeed later. The other aspect is even if they have jobs they don’t like, they’ll know to look for jobs that suit them better; they’ll find jobs that they like better. They’ll know the types of people they like to work with — so they can go out and find a job, and realize, “This guy reminds me of this terrible manager I had,” or a great manager. They might find an industry they’re surprised to like.

How much extra scratch are we talking?
It is difficult to put an exact number on it due to the structure of the data. We unfortunately only have data following the respondents until the age of 25. The income effect of working during the school year at the age of 15 is consistently significant in predicting higher income at ages 17, 19, 21, 23 and 25. But we can’t reliably say anything beyond that age.

How do they move from low-wage jobs to high-wage jobs if that’s the only experience on their resumes?
Any job actually helps them. One of the things with employers who hire younger people, they’re more likely to hire someone with a consistent job, be it fast food or whatever, even if it’s a job unrelated to fast food. So those younger people do have a leg up. Regardless of the types of jobs they have, even with the entry-level jobs, they wind up with better-fitting jobs and higher-paying jobs.

You also found it’s best when employment goes beyond the summer, but doesn’t involve too many hours.
The summer job effects are there a bit, but the strongest effects are from a part-time job throughout the year. At the point where it’s over optimal hours, in the summer it’s 40 and during the school year it’s 33, their schoolwork suffers, their social life suffers, their family suffers or stress just overcomes them. It was surprising to me, 33 hours — I was expecting it to be a bit smaller; 33 hours in the school year seemed awfully high, but in general kids could handle it.

What explains your finding that working for a family business helps the most? It seems like your parents would go easier on you!
When young people work at a family business, they get a little more responsibility than working for strangers, so they might come in contact with people who are more senior within the organization and be included in some decisions they might not normally be included in, and they get used to that.

With the economic downturn, teenagers have been competing with adults for low-wage jobs — what’s been the long-term effect of that?
The informal entries we’ve done suggest that, in the current generation, there’s less of a focus on getting a job — to get some extra money, to get their first car — and more focus on extracurriculars and trophies, being president of the debate club, to get into the best college. The irony is that having a positive work experience helps with getting into college.

So our dads were right about this “building character” thing they wouldn’t STFU about?
“Building work ethic” is how I’d say it. Even if it’s not a high-paying job, it builds social skills, how to interact with people, interact with managers, office politics. … Warren Buffett isn’t passing along his fortune to his children, and there’s lots of examples of that as well.

Not like young people should quit school and go work 90 hours per week.
If you’re in Canada or the U.S. or Europe, there are labor code protections — it’s not “Oliver Twist.” In other countries, there are no labor protections and it’s a totally different story. You shouldn’t open up a factory and hire children.