Teen Boss and the rise of the get-rich childhood
Summer job season is nearly upon us, and time was, tweens and teens had a predictable work trajectory. Start out babysitting or mowing lawns, graduate to scooping ice cream, slinging fries, or stocking grocery shelves.
Forget all that.
The future of teen employment is here, and it’s in the pages of Teen Boss. This glossy mag (written as Teen Bo$$! on its covers) caters to kids and their dreams of entrepreneurship, #influencer cred, and social media stardom—all paving the way to thousands or even millions of dollars in online revenue. (Think Tiger Beat, but instead of a poster of Johnny Depp, you get a business plan from Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran.)
Frightening? Perhaps. But Teen Boss is just one example of how Generation Z is being groomed for self-made success. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” means little when middle schoolers can find themselves propelled to overnight viral fame, or six-year-olds earn $30,000 a day posting “unboxing” videos to YouTube. (Google it.) These are outliers, of course, but for the millions of kids following this new breed of celebrity, the idea of instant fame and fortune is intoxicating.
There’s no harm in taking inspiration from these stories, but nudge kids toward more realistic goals.
Couple that with the ideal of the post-recession worker-preneur—hustling and networking 24/7—and it’s easy to see how teens envision a path to success that involves after-school time at a WeWork space. Avalanching student debt and stalling social mobility are making them question the value of a college degree. And with increasing numbers of adults pushed into contract work, often without benefits or stability, it’s no wonder that entrepreneurship coursework is popping up in elementary school. By the time these kids graduate, many may find they have no choice but to work for themselves.
So, what do you do if your kid is already on the Teen Boss track?
As parents, it’s our duty to take a step back and remember a few fad-proof principles when it comes to kids and money. First, it’s crucial to have money conversations with your children—no matter how old they are—seizing on everyday teachable moments to help them understand the financial facts of life. Second, use cash wherever possible to help them make smarter choices. Spending apps and plastic create the illusion of “magic” money, without the so-called “pain of paying” that comes from giving up real currency. And last but not least, encourage the long game by cultivating savings habits to sustain them for a lifetime. Pass on these values and your kids will be in good shape.
That said, if you’ve got a tween with Teen Boss-style dreams of entrepreneurial and social media success, you need to talk them through the financial pros and cons. Here’s where to start.
The good: Hard work & hustle
Most hyper-successful kids get that way by putting in a lot of sweat equity. In one Teen Boss profile, Bella, the founder of an online jewelry company, recounts how she started selling after her parents told her she’d have to foot the bill if she wanted a car for her 16th birthday. YouTube mega-celebs Brooklyn and Bailey note in their Teen Boss story that their earnings are being set aside for college expenses. (Mere mortal teens and their parents, take note: Research shows that students who contribute to their college education actually earn higher grades.)
There’s no harm in taking inspiration from these stories, but nudge kids toward more realistic goals—making $40 selling homemade blondies at a little league game, say, instead of raising capital for a fleet of food trucks. And be clear about parental budget limitations: Behind many young entrepreneurs are families who are willing and able to put eye-popping sums on the line for teenage dreams.
The bad: That get-rich-quick mindset
“How to make money online right now!” “Make millions on YouTube…just by being yourself!” “In 3 months, I earned enough to pay for college!” Even if the fine print in Teen Boss profiles tells of 12-hour days churning ice cream or editing videos, these screaming headlines will likely be your kid’s takeaways. And that’s dangerous for a few reasons.
First, when kids leap at the promise of easy riches, they’re skipping over the fact that getting what you want out of life—whether that’s financial stability, career satisfaction, or an elusive balance of the two—takes sustained hard work and patience. Delayed gratification is the key to any successful financial life.
Second, while money is a motivator—and a very necessary one—it shouldn’t be the only reason you get up in the morning. Talk to your kid about the intangible reasons you do what you do. Even if you are just clocking in for a paycheck, tell them why you do it (to support the family you love).
Finally, the idea that kids and parents alike see hitting the viral jackpot as the key to paying for higher education says scary things about the state of college affordability. Forget social media stardom. Long-term saving, planning, and budgeting should be the backbone of your family’s college strategy (hello, 529), as well as considering more affordable options like community college.
The good: Personal Finance 101
Your kid wants to start a business? Great. She’s going to need to know her money basics. Thankfully, Teen Boss seems to understand this. Buried within its shoot-for-the-moon entrepreneurial smorgasbord are a few pages of refreshingly practical personal finance tips. Quizzes like “Why would you SLAY as CEO?” and “Which celeb-preneur are you most like?” are balanced with more grounded features on how to write a check, or how to grow your savings via compound interest (or by asking parents or grandparents for a savings match—a tip straight from my book Make Your Kid a Money Genius).
The bad: Everyone’s got a sales pitch
The biggest problem with Teen Boss is that it purports to teach you how to sell yourself…by trying to sell you a bunch of other stuff. Profiles of teen-preneurs call out their social handles, e-commerce sites, and Etsy shops, where you can learn more about grain-free dog treats, bespoke bowties, and all-natural nail polish. At least one innovation profiled by Teen Boss—a customizable backpack company—is an obvious multilevel marketing scheme (or, as they used to call them, pyramid scheme), pitched at ages 13 and up.
The maelstrom of tween social media celebrity amplifies the sales pitches. Click here. Subscribe here. Oh, and watch these pre-roll ads. Scroll past these sponsored posts. It was sketchy enough to learn, a few years ago, that cereal box characters are strategically angled to make eye contact with kids browsing the supermarket aisles. But in our exploding digital landscape, marketing has become so subversive, so pervasive, so customizable on our devices that it’s basically impossible to escape.
That is, unless you take it offline. And that’s why, this summer, if your kid gets her hands on a copy of Teen Boss, don’t pitch it straight in the recycling. You might reasonably fear they’ll be suckered in, but learning exactly what kind of fool you’re being played for is an important part of being a smart, modern consumer. And remember, kids love being in on the adult knowledge that advertising and branding manipulate us into making choices that are often against our best interests. Teen Boss may take all its language from social media, but it’s a magazine. Ironically, that affords you a rare chance for an offline conversation about your family’s money values. OMG!