(AP Photo/Jim Myers, File)
Kathie Tinker, left, serves Brandon Shepard in this Oct. 4, 2002, file photo taken at a Krystal restaurant in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Krystal Co.

I was pulling away from the window at a fast-food restaurant the other day when what I had just seen suddenly registered in my heat-soaked brain: Every single one of the people working behind that counter or moving back and forth through the visible kitchen area was at least college-age or older.

And several of them had gray hair.

That is, possibly, the image that will remain with me if I'm ever asked by still-future grandchildren to describe the economic era in which we now live.

At a movie last week, a middle-aged man took my ticket and a 20-something sold me popcorn.

What is so noticeable is what's missing: Teenagers are not working the traditional entry-level or low-skills jobs that have for so long been a training ground transition into responsibility and adulthood.

As Danielle Kurtzleben wrote recently for U.S. News and World Report, "The youngster who takes movie tickets, scans groceries or walks neighborhood dogs is doing much more than earning extra cash. She is investing in her future."

And those who hire that youngster are investing, as well, in their own prosperity and in that child's coming adulthood.

Several of my friends have recently posted notes on Facebook, asking anyone who sees a job opening that a teenage son or daughter might fill to please share it. Their kids — great students, respectful, ambitious — haven't been able to land work yet and the summer break is nearly half over.

We were told early in the year that that's what the summer of 2012 would look like, given current economic tremors. But the reality and its ramifications are nonetheless startling. At least a third of teens actively looking for jobs haven't found them. The number's higher for youths of color. And that puts teens' future economic prospects further behind. Working helps with more than gas money and the cost of dating.

Some kids need jobs to help families that are struggling financially. Some are saving for college educations that may be pushed back. And for all of them, it's a proving ground to learn discipline and new skills and interact in person with others in a world that increasingly relates through emoticons and text messages.

But it's sure hard to begrudge those other workers who are taking the jobs that teens used to dominate.

I have several friends who retired from regular careers and ended up back working part-time in low-wage jobs because they needed a little extra financial help to make ends meet.

And I know at least two moms, just slightly younger than me, who were among the waves of Americans laid off in the last couple of years who now work low-skill jobs while they look for something that will pay more and better use their talents.

Still, how's a kid supposed to compete with a father of two who really needs to find something for the sake of his family? If you were hiring, what would you do?

I know I'd probably hire that dad, in part because I'd sympathize with his plight and figure at least the kid's not trying to make the rent. That's a valid consideration.

Picking someone with work experience if such an applicant is available has more than a little allure, as well.

But kids cannot get experience unless someone hires them. And the value of earning some of your own way, of learning news skills and figuring out what to do with your money, is a gigantic step in personal development.

It's also a deterrent for a variety of things, from discouragement to the temptations that can come with boredom. Crime, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and other challenges are diminished when teens have jobs.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.