Our teens are “working for a livin’”
By Brooke Harless MacMillan
They can’t vote, they can’t drive and their brains are in the middle of a massive cognitive overhaul, but collectively they’re helping to mitigate the Crested Butte worker shortages felt by local business over the busy summer months.
Fourteen-year-olds have come out in numbers this summer to work, many for the first time, in businesses throughout the community. Since school let out in June, an estimated 75 percent of the incoming ninth-grade Crested Butte Community School class has been holding down jobs at local businesses.
Businesses have been steadily adding the group to their stable of summer workers, due largely to their inherent possession of the things desperately needed right now in reliable workers—housing, transportation (thanks, Mom!) and open schedules. Ninety rising freshman (the largest CBCS ninth-grade class in recent memory) are making for the biggest class yet to hit the employment scene.
“I don’t know what we’d do without them. I have a great bunch of 14- and 15-year-olds who are eager to work and feel lucky to have a job. They’re hard workers and super tech-savvy, which is helpful,” said Mountain Earth owner Cini Jackson, who employs five 14-year-olds.
Rubbing elbows with upperclassmen and adults, they have fanned out across the community to clean, bus tables, answer phones, wash dishes, work the cash register, mow lawns and stock shelves, along with other sweaty, character-building pursuits.
Youth labor in this country is nothing new and dates back to colonial times, when many young people learned trades as apprentices or helped sow and harvest. In fact, during Crested Butte’s mining days, it wasn’t unusual for kids as young as six to work in the mines alongside their families. But with the nation’s rapid industrialization came heightened concerns about youth labor because of the increased emphasis on education and the widespread exploitation of young workers. Laws were eventually introduced specifying what jobs were appropriate for each age group.
These laws vary by state, and Colorado has some of the youngest allowances for teens to be gainfully employed. Beginning at age nine, kids in Colorado are legally allowed to do a number of jobs, many of which nod to a bygone era—delivering handbills, shoe-shining, gardening, golf caddying, and so on. By age 12 they can also deliver newspapers, babysit, work in door-to-door sales, and help out farming.
But by their 14th birthday, the curtain parts to another world of employment possibilities that include the teen-coveted occupations in food and retail service. This is a boon for local businesses that have been feeling the ache of worker shortages in peak visitor season.
Zoe Hanna, 14, works at Scout’s General and in her short life has also worked at a preschool and horse ranch. She also sunlights at Octopus Coffee when she’s not waiting on customers at Scout’s General. Hanna lives in Crested Butte South and takes the bus into town for her shifts. She says she works not only for the money, but also for the sense of purpose it gives her.
“I’ve learned I’ve got more of a will to do things when I do them professionally, in a real job. I feel more empowered in my life,” Zoe said. Zoe is saving for college and, we hope, a little fun.
Places like Mountain Earth, the Brick Oven Pizzeria, the Secret Stash and the Last Steep seem to hold the lion’s share of young workers and most managers and business owners couldn’t praise the demographic enough, though a few mentioned how often some are on their phones.
Dan Loftus, one of the owners of the Brick Oven, has been hiring young teens for years but this is his largest, youngest posse to date.
“They’re hard workers and we need them. I’m not sure what we’d have done without them this year. It’s also great because when they start at 14, they’ll often stay with us until graduation or beyond,” he says.
The Brick is a popular first job that breeds a kind of loyalty not unlike trenchant sports fandom. Recently, one young employee threw up her hands in a pseudo gang sign, yelling, “I’m all Brick, baby!”
Loftus gets pockets of friend groups and siblings who apply together and is now employing the kids of some of his first employees.
Cassidy Wirsing, a hostess and busser at the Brick, decided to take a summer job to save up for the 2020 CBCS tenth grade trip to Scotland. In fact, almost all of the students I spoke to said that saving for the Scotland trip (roughly $3,800) was one of their biggest motivators in getting a job, as each student is responsible for paying a small portion towards the trip each month.
This kind of travel lay-away seems to have single-handedly changed the employment landscape as well as the work ethic among our teens more than any other motivator. And this also suggests that our teens are working harder and earlier than others in the country. According to a 2018 Pew Research Report, only 35 percent of teenagers held a paid position over the previous summer, compared with 51 percent in 2000.
Money-making aside, having a summer job can help develop the life skills us adults always like to extol—organization, time management, communication and conflict management, not to mention self-possession, confidence and ease around customers who are often quadruple their age. And at a time of hyper-parenting and lengthening transitions to adulthood, getting a job on one’s own can be a step toward independence.
Liberty Hastings, 14, works as a hostess, food runner and occasional busser at the Secret Stash, an establishment that is high on the list for many young workers for its culture of cool and tight-knit staff. Finishing her shift the other day, Hastings held a bright smile as she joked with her colleagues. She had initially been extremely nervous to start the job but once she got the hang of it, she has come to love the freedom and independence it allows.
“I like that I can buy my own stuff and go on trips. It feels like I earned it when I worked for it,” Liberty admits.
In his seminal book on the topic, Working, journalist Studs Terkel wrote, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Though bussing tables and running a cash register isn’t glamorous work, our young people are helping to keep our economy thrumming, and in doing so are learning about themselves and setting a course for the meaningful, change-making lives we know they’ll lead.