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.

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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? 

Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.