Whatever happened to the teenage summer job?

Picking strawberries or waiting tables used to be a rite of passage. But the summer job as we know it may be disappearing

Fruit pickers Ashlynn O’Leary and Aoife Guiney with Jimmy Kearns, owner of Kearns Fruit Farm outside Enniscorthy in  Co Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Fruit pickers Ashlynn O’Leary and Aoife Guiney with Jimmy Kearns, owner of Kearns Fruit Farm outside Enniscorthy in Co Wexford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

Earlier this summer Jimmy Kearns hired 25-30 people in their late teens to work on his fruit farm a few miles outside Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

Within a few days, just a handful remained.

“You’d think they were landing from the moon,” says Kearns, a farmer in his mid-60s.

“They’ve clearly never done any work before. They weren’t able to keep up any amount of concentration. It was too boring for them. They were checking their phones and sending messages. They had an attitude from the start. They couldn’t hack it.”

Picking raspberries or strawberries at the height of summer in plastic-covered tunnels, with temperatures climbing above 30 degrees, isn’t easy and can be boring, he concedes.

But there is money to be made for those willing to put in hard graft, he says. The best pickers – who are paid by the punnet – earn up to €20 an hour.

The teenagers on his farm, he says, were barely making €4 or €5 an hour given the paltry amounts they harvested.

“Some of them were mauling the fruit. I asked one of them to sweep up the yard instead. I found him later with a tiny dustpan brush... You’d swear he’d never seen a yard brush before!

“We had to send some of them home. They don’t know how to behave on a farm. They don’t look where they’re going... One of them came dressed as if he was heading to a disco...

“If someone is willing and has the urge to work, that’s great. But for most the attitude seems to be, ‘if it’s too hard, it’s just not worth it’. Too much is given to them.”

Rite of passage

A summer job used to be a rite of passage for most teenagers. Picking strawberries or waiting tables in restaurants provided valuable work experience and a first taste of financial independence.

There is mounting evidence, however, that the summer job as we know it is disappearing.

Across the labour force generally, the number of 15-19 year olds involved in part-time or full-time employment has plummeted by nearly 30 per cent over the past decade.

There was also a 20 per cent drop among 20-24 year olds, which is equivalent to 200,000 young people who have disappeared from the labour force.

By contrast, the number of people aged 30-65 increased over the same period.

So are young people simply getting lazier? Or do they consider summer jobs beneath them?

There are differing views among economists, employers and young people for the reasons behind the fall-off.

Some of the reduction is likely to be linked to a sharp growth in the number of young people staying in education during the economic downturn, say economists.

The proportion of pupils staying in second level until their Leaving Cert has climbed to a record high of more than 90 per cent since the downturn, while more young people than ever are progressing to higher education. Education, not indolence, may be to blame.

False expectations

Many employers and psychologists think something else is at play: a cultural shift in which young people’s adolescence is extending and leading them to be more dependent on their parents.

Some feel it is stripping young people of vital life skills – such as resilience and self-reliance – and robbing them of responsibility for decision-making during their formative years.

Child and adolescent psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor thinks the image of a casual, laid back workplace projected by companies like Google has given teenagers a false impression of the working world.

“The Googleisation of our world is that some young people don’t realise that careers are actually hard and that it’s a lot of hard work,” he says.

For psychologist Dr Maureen Gaffney, a large part of the drop in adolescents working is that they lack the skills called for in the modern labour market.

She believes attributes such as emotional resilience, autonomous working, critical thinking and an open mindset aren’t taught to young people in schools.

“Do I think the Irish education system is built for that? No, I don’t,” she says. “The world of work was a lot more structured before, so these things weren’t called for.”

While Dr Gaffney is sceptical that we can lay the blame at the door of helicopter parents, Dr Noctor feels over-parenting is to blame for young people who are less resilient than before.

He points to “snowplough parents” who clear the way for their child. “That does disable the child’s independence to manage their own adversity,” he says.

Legal changes

Some point to changes in legal regulations and restrictions surrounding youth employees which may make it less attractive to hire under-18s.

The changes, however, have been minimal. The last significant change to youth employment legislation was enacted in 1996; and this, say lawyers, was an incremental change to the regime that applied in the late 1970s.

It provides that children under 14 may not be employed except under limited circumstances.

During the summer holidays, 14 and 15 year olds may do “light work” with at least 21 days off. Working hours are capped at 35 for 15-year-olds and 40 for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Of more significance, say some employers, is health and safety legislation enacted in 2015 which obliges them to undertake risk assessments to ensure children are safe. But some employers say these are simple tick-box requirements rather anything too onerous.

Leon Egan, a teenager and president of Irish Secondary Schools Union, says the recession left a glut of jobseekers with a track record of employment which makes it hard for young people to compete with.

“It created a loop of not being able to get experience by working and not being able to work due to lack of experience,” he says.

“Many in this age bracket feel that a large amount of the time to get a job as a young person you need to know or be connected to the owners in some way.”

Camogie

Back at Kearns’ farm near Ballindaggin, Co Wexford, just three Irish teenagers – all girls – remain picking fruit in the fields.

While most of their peers wilted within days, they are still going strong.

“It’s camogie,” says Aoife Guiney (18) from Rathnure, Co Wicklow. “Picking is hard, physical work. You could see the others dropping away. Maybe they hadn’t done much physical exercise but the physical contact of camogie helped.”

Guiney, who hopes to study science and become a radiographer, adds: “I think that there are young people who aren’t made do anything at home. They might have a lot handed to them. In my case, I’ve always been made do chores and to look our for myself.”

Her friend, Ashlynn O’Leary (18), agrees.

“We gave it time to get good at it, and then we started to earn more, and we have each other so we’re a bit competitive.”

She says their earnings grew from €22 on their first day to €40 and €50 on good days.

“I do think a lot of young people in our generation take things for granted and aren’t used to working to get what they want,” says O’Leary, who hopes to study midwifery. “Maybe they’re not as resilient as others.”

In the absence of young people, Kearns says he relies on eastern European workers.

“In the last five years, it’s mostly Romanians. The Poles have, largely, gone on to better jobs. I take my hat off to them, the are great workers. If it wasn’t for them, we might just pack up. The fruit just wouldn’t be picked.”