Faces of fast-food workers getting older

Teens are less likely to be your cashier or burger flipper as more experienced Americans scramble for jobs.

By Jason Notte Apr 16, 2013 8:07AM
Marino Ahuatl works the drive through station at a McDonalds in Wheaton, Ill. ( Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)If you're a teenager walking into a McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKW) or Yum Brands' (YUM) Taco Bell, chances are the person behind the counter isn't a friend or classmate but one of their parents.

NBC News notes that the recession grayed the fast-food workforce a bit, with 42% of restaurant and fast-food employees now over the age of 25. All of those older workers have at least some college education, including 753,000 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That's terrible news for American teenagers, who went from 25% of the fast-food workforce a decade ago to just 16% last year. As a result, they're being squeezed out nearly altogether. While the overall U.S. unemployment rate was 7.6% in March, for teenagers 16 through 19, it was 24.2%.

It also means that full-grown adults are now being paid pocket-money wages. Nearly 3 million Americans work in the food-service industry, according to the BLS, with a growing portion of that total working in fast food. That group is now roughly equal to the population of Mississippi.

As restaurants rail against President Barack Obama's health care insurance mandate and insist that his proposal to hike the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 by 2015 would bleed them dry, some chains have realized that their workforce has changed.

In-N-Out Burger, for example, starts its employees at $10 an hour and offers benefits. Starbucks (SBUX) has also been a boon for workers because of its benefits packages. The fast-food industry as a whole, however, is still the worst-paying in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Workers are typically limited to part-time shifts capped around 24 hours a week and make less than $18,000 a year for their efforts.

The industry doesn't pay more because it doesn't have to be particularly picky. Before the recession, the Restaurant Industry Tracking Survey indicated that 35% of food-service employers considered recruiting and retaining employees a problem. This year, that's down to 5%.

With 284,000 college graduates making minimum wage and those with a high school education or less increasingly jobless, fast-food franchisees can be more judicious with their staffing decisions. The choice is now between inexperienced, flaky, distracted but fresh-faced teens or their parents who've been worn down by years of experience and humbled by the recent downturn.

Not surprisingly, places like Wendy's (WEN), Panera Bread (PNRA) and Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) are increasingly opting for the docile and desperate latter.

More on moneyNOW

Apr 16, 2013 8:22AM
It's not just fast food.  Grocery stores used to employ a bunch of high school and college kids, so did stores like Wal-Mart and Lowes and Old Navy - not anymore.  Same thing with yard work - 25 years ago, if you hired someone to rake your leaves, shovel your snow, clean your gutters or cut your grass, you probably hired a neighborhood kid.  Now, you have to call a "landscape services" company and they'll bring out their giant mower, make 3 passes over your postage stamp lot and charge you $50.
Apr 16, 2013 9:03AM
It's sad to see what has become of our job market.  With so many dropping out of the work force, I guess you can't blame people for trying to get on disability.  When ObamaCare kicks in, I'm afraid we might lose these jobs too.  Just wait and see,  a part time sixty year old, with no medical insurance, bussing your table...if you can afford to go out to eat.  When oh when is this president going to do something about jobs!  My guess is never.  You got what you voted for.
Apr 16, 2013 1:40PM
I would point out that as far back as the 90's, a cousin of mine who owns four McDonald's in Northern Maryland told me that she'd rather pay $7/hr then to retirees returning to work than $5 ($4.25 was the minimum wage) to teenagers because the older workers showed up on time and when they ran into a problem while, for example, sweeping the lot, they solved it themselves instead of simply ignoring it or running inside and asking, "What am I supposed to do?"

Today, as I note below, there are companies now that reward workers with time-off if they simply show up for work on time every-day for a month!

As someone who worked fast-food in high school and college from 1967-70 and as a high school chemistry and physics teacher until 2006, it amazed me when my teenaged students would tell me things like: "We had an unusual dinner-time rush last night, took in more than a usual Tuesday, so we closed KFC at 8:30 last night and went home - including the young asst. manager."

My county school system paid me some summers to study local industry, everything from United Airlines at BWI Airport to Restaurants to see how well we were preparing students to meet workforce demands.  The biggest disappointment, aside from No Child Left Behind killing needed vo-tech skills like auto mechanic, was a lack of responsibility in young workers.  One printing company actually gave workers a half-day off if they simply showed up on-time every day for a month.

Jul 11, 2013 3:58AM
the children now love luxury;  they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of  exercise. children are now the tyrants not the servants of their households. they no longer rise when an elder enters the room, they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up all the dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers. -socrates
Jul 11, 2013 4:31AM
Things will only get worse for young people looking for jobs as the government raises the retirement age.
Jul 11, 2013 3:46AM
ppl have been complaining about ''todays kids'' since there were kids, Socrates even wrote about it.  it depends on the person young or old there's always bad workers at every age.  I worked at dunkin donuts in 1982 when I was 16, if you worked 40 hrs  a week  the law requires the employer to give you benefits, so they just simply gave ppl 39 hours or less so they wouldn't have to  pay, that was over 30 yrs ago, nothing has or will ever change.
Apr 16, 2013 1:53PM

This is what happens when you don't pay workers enough and they don't have a pension.  The older workers can't afford to retire and they take what used to be the part time jobs of teens and college students.


If they had retired at the appropriate age, they would have given their jobs to the next generation who wouldn't have to take the students' and teens' jobs.  Too many workers now putting pressure that allows businesses to pay their workers less and offer less in benefits. 

Apr 17, 2013 10:55AM
In my opinion Teens have become to spoiled and lazy because everything is given to them that is why the older generation is taking up the slack.
Apr 17, 2013 12:59PM
Today's kids, by and large, are more interested in their hand-held devices and tweeting/texting than applying themselves in any substantive way to learning job skills and social grace when dealing with and serving the public. Hallelujah to us over-the-hill-and-ready-to-roll ancients for coming to the rescue.
Apr 16, 2013 1:39PM

older workers,, they come from not having income as seniors for high medical care, they come from professionals who have been outtrained by the colleges by supplying younger more skilled , from companies who want to over work their employees while they are young, to acheive more production from less employees, from greedy C>E>Os that make 500,000.00 just for showing up while their lower paid ones are let go.  They could keep the work force up and have them contribute to their own retirements with what they run rappant on.  The teens are being led into drugs, and scrubulus ways to make money and laugh at those wages. we are destoying the young , ruining our businesses, promoting greed and the two level income,, those with and without.   Why is it so hard to recognise.. Put God , strict laws and the enforcement behind them . empty the prisons by you know.. elimiating the ones who eliminate us. Allow people to protect their own, with out spending more and more government monies which we pay anyway.

older workers show up , are reliable, dont hang with friends every min, nor are attached to an electonic device. It is so obvious, wake up america... wake up


Jul 11, 2013 10:16AM

My daughter is a assistant manager in a fast food restaurant and they hire adults and seniors because most kids they hire can't work this or that day because they want to spend it with their boyfriend, some can't make correct change, can't follow procedure, some give away free food to their friends, rude, report off(usually on Saturdays) etc..These kids usually get fired and they wonder why.


There's a lot more to the story.


But, there are many kids that are hard workers that needs their job to pay for their car, help their family, support their child or save money for college.

1) Nobody wants to hire a teenager as they're inexperienced and lazy. i'd rather hire a 50 year old who is going to bother actually doing their jobs.

2) kids are lazy these days. Around here you never see them in most retail or food jobs, you rarely even see them at the movie theater which was always a prime employer when i was a teen.

Apr 16, 2013 11:06AM
President Obama.  The greatest economic mastermind since Jimmy Carter.
Apr 17, 2013 9:07AM
This crap all started when these big companies started sending jobs out of this country.Now that domino effect is finally taken hold(long before obama)of these UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.Now i would say that is alot of lost revenue which help push the deficit up.Applause for those corporate decisions to put AMERICANS out of work.One good thing if your a ceo of one of those companies your well deserve bonus for saving all that blood money.
Apr 16, 2013 1:10PM
It does'nt matter anymore No one has common courtesy or respect for anyone anyways young or old so who cares.
Jul 11, 2013 2:31PM
I've done a little fast food and lots of retail and they were both horrible experiences, no surprise. It calls for desperate situations to work in such thankless places.
Bad hours, pay, 100% standing, always open so no holidays enjoyed, rude customers.

Jul 11, 2013 12:06PM

So sad..My son is a high school grad and still cant find a job! College loans out the roof and what are these kids supposed to do?


Jul 11, 2013 4:29PM
It boils down to work ethic....obviously this is something that was not taught to the upcoming generation.....along with honesty, respect, accountability and manors.  The old quote, "spare the rod, and spoil the child" rings true and is demonstrated.
Jul 11, 2013 11:01AM

Did we read the part about the food industry hiring kids for part-time work, so they don't have to pay them benefits? Do we realize that there is an interstate transport of food clause that allows restaurants to pay less than minimum wages because the food is transported across state lines, as if that makes sense to the kid working there, who is trying to save for college?


When will it be clear that our government needs to better regulate wages, and promote worker representation, rather than attacking the unions that do this, which only Democrats do, while corporations have unlimited resources to pay lobbyists and ALEC councils to push for legislation that benefits them, while we see our wages slipping away, never to return.....at the hand of the Republican Party, who has no soul, and is only interested in the Sociopathic need to get hired, after a few terms in government, by those corporations they pushed legislation for, while representing no one except the rich, whom they rub shoulders with!

Jul 11, 2013 1:50PM

older people gota work too....anyways, at least you know theyre doing whats right and not just goofing the responsibility of the job theyre employed to do.


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