Babysitting. The classic first job; an introduction to the world of work for countless adolescents. For Generation X, babysitting was big business. The job was so synonymous with teens that in the 80’s and 90’s Ann M. Martin’s book series, The Baby-sitters Club, was essential reading for high schoolers and the spin-off TV show a must-watch.

I personally have fond memories of watching my neighbors’ daughter while they went out. A funny, precocious but well-mannered little girl, we’d enjoy completing a puzzle or playing a round of picture bingo before she’d request a glass of milk and a bedtime story. She’d be yawning before we reached the final page and, when I tucked her into bed, she’d be asleep within minutes, leaving me to enjoy the snacks and juice her parents had left as I watched the TV. A few hours later I’d head home with cash in my pocket and a sense of pride for having earned money myself.

My son is now at an age where he and his peers are on the cusp of looking for part-time jobs. We’ve taken a steady interest in the adverts placed in shop windows where I live here in Sheffield in the UK, or on local Facebook groups and have seen that there is a distinct lack of opportunities for teenagers. Paper rounds, another staple earner for teens are few and far between – presumably, a casualty of the digital age where we read articles online. Pot washing jobs come up more frequently but are quickly filled. But babysitting jobs? They’re nowhere to be seen. Where have they gone?

The way we view babysitting has changed as society has evolved. Generation X were raised by Boomer parents who grew up in a time where childcare was a less formal arrangement. For Boomers, it was normal for elder siblings to be left to care for their younger brothers and sisters. Tighter communities pulled together to support each other and playing out on the street was common — meaning neighbors could keep a collective eye out. These were areas where everyone knew each other, and families lived in close proximity.

As families moved further apart when new housing shot up, opportunities arose for teenagers. Babysitting was a win-win situation — parents were able to work or socialize as their child was looked after in their own home, and teenagers earned their own pocket money and developed a stronger sense of responsibility.

Although many factors have played a part in reducing the number of babysitting opportunities, the biggest of these is a fear of danger. We live in a world where it’s impossible to escape horror stories of children who have been mistreated, abused or even killed while in someone else's care. High-profile news stories such as the 1997 Matthew Eappen case, where 19-year-old au pair Louise Woodward was found guilty of murder (later reduced to involuntary manslaughter), made parents fearful of leaving their children with people other than family or close friends. Other news stories of child killers such as the James Bulger case made parents reconsider their preconceptions that even children are good and innocent – Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were just ten years old when they kidnapped, tortured and killed the two-year-old Bulger. 

Money could also be contributing to the lack of babysitting jobs available to teens — as the cost of living continues to rise and the public looks to cut back on non-essential spending, paying out for babysitters is viewed by some as an unnecessary expense. This is particularly true for people who have family nearby that they can call on for help with childcare. Friendship groups are an alternative to this, with some setting up babysitting circles and carpooling to share the childcare load. Parents are often reassured by leaving their children with other parents rather than with teens, confident that the parents will have a wider skillset because of their own child-rearing experiences. The feeling is that babysitting jobs are declining, but with the average age of babysitters in the UK rising to 32, perhaps teens are being forced out of the market?

There’s no getting away from the fact that today’s teenagers are growing up in a different time to that of the babysitting boom. The pandemic and lockdown restrictions that came with it affected all ages, but it can be argued that it is teenagers who were hardest hit. Adolescence is a time of increased freedom where they develop skills needed to negotiate, compromise and make decisions. For pandemic teens, the opportunities to develop these skills were reduced. As many as half of all teenagers in the UK are living with anxiety, which could be linked to the gaps in their emotional development resulting from the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The children now in need of babysitting have also been affected by the pandemic. Babies and preschoolers, who previously had experience of being left at childcare facilities as parents worked, are spending more time at home as a result of the increase in home working. These youngsters had less opportunities to form bonds with people outside their immediate family and may be more wary of ‘stranger danger’ – a form of social anxiety which normally peaks between 7-10 months of age. This could make babysitting a more challenging experience for all involved – the child whose anxiety is heightened by a new situation, the parents who are on edge because their child is distressed, and the babysitter who feels out of their depth.

Teenagers today also have different expectations about what the working world looks like. They have grown up in an era where YouTubers and influencers are high-earners – with some of these celebrities being their contemporaries. Schools and colleges make them aware of technological advances changing at such a pace that 2018 research by Dell Technologies and Institute for the Future predict up to 85% of jobs that people will have in 2030 don’t yet exist. Rather than looking to traditional jobs of the past, teenagers are looking to the future, plotting careers in areas such as 3-D printing, augmented reality architecture and smart city planning rather than their old-fashioned counterparts. Babysitting, paper rounds and pot-washing seem outdated; not to mention going against the growth mindset we’ve encouraged teenagers to adopt. Children are told they can achieve anything they put their mind to and their dreams go beyond the popular first jobs of their parents and grandparents.

What does all this mean for our teens in the long term? Work experience is a worthy addition to any CV and it allows teenagers to develop their skills, grow their confidence and encourage a greater awareness of finances. But with fewer part-time roles available for teenagers, is this yet another rite of passage they are missing?

Employers may need to reassess their recruitment and training programs to account for, and fill the gaps in, teens’ experiences. Volunteering could see a resurgence as teenagers unable to find a suitable job look to get work experience. Perhaps online portfolios showing examples of work will become the norm for job applicants, especially as UK data shows 82% of jobs require digital skills

As babysitting (and similar jobs) slide away as jobs for teens, we need to look for ways to fill the gaps these early employment opportunities offer if we want to build a caring, nurturing generation with strong interpersonal skills. Work is a fundamental part of life and teenagers need to be exposed to this in preparation for adulthood. If we don't provide teens with the opportunities to build the resilience, patience and work ethic needed to survive, we are failing our future economy and – most importantly – failing them.