Sierra, 17, front desk employee at a bowling alley

They Work Hard for the Money

Getting your first summer job is a timeless rite of passage—one which fewer and fewer high schoolers are taking on. But for these teens, their paychecks aren’t the only valuable part of their working experience.

Once the domain of teens slinging ice cream at the mall, scooping popcorn at the local movie theater, or watching over their peers from a lifeguard perch at the pool, the American summer job is in transition. Based on data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 34.6 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds were employed on average from June through August 2018—compared to 51.7 percent in the summer of 2000, and 57.7 percent in the summer of 1979. But it remains a practical choice for some, a chance to learn a new skill or save up some extra spending money, and a necessity for others. “In high school, there’s a difference between having to work and having the option to work,” says photographer Eva O’Leary, who spent much of June and July 2019 taking pictures of young people employed in her Pennsylvania hometown. But these days, finding kids on payroll isn’t easy. “It was pretty challenging to find high schoolers who were working. I went all over town, every day,” says O’Leary, who also grew up working a number of odd jobs.

Ultimately, O’Leary was able to locate teens working to save up money for college, or just get through small-town summer boredom. Sometimes, the work itself may be a little dull, but finding confidence in learning how to use a register, resolve conflicts with customers, or just earning a wage that’s all your own is enough to make it worthwhile.

“I need money for college, so a job is helpful.”

—Grace, 14, parking sales manager


“I appreciate the laid-back environment at the theater. Big releases can get a little overwhelming occasionally, but I always enjoy spending the downtime between movies with my coworkers.”

—Owen, 16, floor employee at a movie theater

“Because children are so open and have fewer barriers and morals and preconceptions about the world, they love so easily and purely. You can listen to their story for two minutes and you become their favorite person in the universe. I love this job because I love listening. Kids are often in need of someone who cares enough to listen.”

—Ari, 17, babysitter

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“I have gotten to be friends with the other people around me who are out of high school. A lot of people think it’s weird for a younger person still being in school and being friends with way older people, but being there, it just doesn’t seem like everyone is so different in age.”

—Kierra, 15, sales associate at a thrift shop

“Everything is catered to the golfer, so as an employee, I have to make sure the customers have the best experience possible. It can be tough to do that sometimes, but it’s all worth it when I get to be at a golf course every day and begin my career in a place that I love. I’m attending Penn State in the fall to pursue a degree in professional golf management.”

—Ryan, 18, employee at a golf resort

“Taking on a summer job wasn’t really an option for me. Eventually you get to the age where not everything can be or will be handed to you. Once you start getting that constant cash flow, it doesn’t even matter that you might be missing out on some of your summer.”

—Auja, 16, receptionist at a nail salon

“We have many different events going on, so I can do anything from setting up bounce houses, working in concessions, helping with sport tournaments, or even concerts. I am a firm believer in making anything fun or a good time.”

—Megan, 18, employee at an indoor sports complex

“I chose this job because it’s close to my house and my school, so I can work during the school year, too. Most people assume that working as a cashier and running the customer service desk is an easy job. I have a lot to remember and have to make sure I am doing what is best for the customer and our store at the same time, which isn’t easy.”

—Madison, 16, service desk employee and cashier at a grocery store

“I know he took the job because his older brother is a lifeguard, too, and lifeguarding is one of the few jobs open to 15-year-olds. Most places want you to be 16 or older. Also, Zachary did help save a little girl’s life last summer, and was given an award by the American Red Cross.”

—Elizabeth Hagerup, whose son Zachary, 17, works as a lifeguard

“In order to succeed in whatever you’re doing with the horse, you must both be on the same page and share a connection. In training, the methods we use are not to force the horse to do anything; we simply ask them to do a task, and they take a guess at what we want. I can honestly say there is never a dull moment.”

—Megan, 16, horse trainer

“Now I understand what it takes to make the movie theater magical, how much popcorn is thrown out every night, and the horror of teenagers not bringing their ID when going to see R-rated movies.”

—Genevieve, 17, floor employee at a movie theater

“While my mom and I checked out at Plato’s Closet one day, our cashier encouraged me to apply for a job when we noticed they were hiring. My mom didn’t think I was old enough, but I convinced her to let me try since I really love fashion and thrift shopping.”

—Drew, 15, sales associate at a thrift shop

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