There has been a lot of research published over the last three years on Gen-Z and their attitude toward work and careers. A consistent thread in that research is Gen-Z’s desire to work, particularly to work for themselves.

In a study by The Center for Generational Kinetics, 77 percent of 14 to 21 year-olds reported earning their own spending money through freelance work, a part time job or earned allowance. In an IBM Institute for Business Value study, 16 percent of teens reported earning money working for themselves, almost as many as the 24 percent who reported working part-time. And 22 percent reported making money online. In a study released by Monster, nearly half (49%) of teens said they wanted to own their own business, compared to only a third (32%) of previous generations.

And yet in June this year, there was a spate of stories about how low teen employment is this summer. Reports bemoaned that teen employment was down from near 60 percent in the 1980s to just 37 percent this year. The coverage tied back to an annual survey of teen employment that relies on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The ramifications for low teen employment outlined in the study are pretty dire. The study claims that teens who don’t take a summer job are: more likely to partake in risky behavior (idle hands!), less likely to develop social skills needed in the workplace, and have lower earning and are more likely to be poor and dependent on welfare as adults.

So why aren’t more teens signing up for seasonal service industry jobs this summer if the consequences of unemployment are so dire? We believe that one of the main reasons is that a lot of them found better ways to make money, ways that don’t show up when you look at traditional employment data.

Research that doesn't take into account the impact of the gig economy likely underestimates teen employment.

Teens and the side-hustle
We’re in constant communication with our teenage customers via Instagram. We ask them to share how they make money with us using the hashtag #CurrentHustle, and the variety and ingenuity that comes through is inspiring. Quite a few make clothes or jewelry and sell it on Etsy. Many buy and resell collectible clothing, including iconic sneakers, jerseys, and pretty much anything made by Supreme. A number are DJs or party planners. One is a custom florist. Several make and sell art. One is a handyman, and several do IT and mobile support for technologically challenged Gen-X and Boomers.

One of the most interesting? A teenager who makes money building architectural renderings in Roblox for businesses. Seriously, that teen has to have a bright future ahead. (See an example of his Instagram Challenge entry below.)

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We have some confidence that these entrepreneurial teens are picking up as much practical experience and real-life skills doing these gig jobs as they would be handing out towels at the local pool or flipping burgers. Not that one type of work is better than the other. Work is good, and teens today still value earning money. Our point is that leaving the gig economy out of the discussion of teen employment risks missing the big picture.