What This Mcdonald's Commercial Gets Wrong About Real Low Wage Workers

July 21st 2017

Mike Rothschild

A touching scene plays out in a national commercial by fast food giants McDonald's. In it, a young employee sheepishly shows a letter from a college to his manager. Calling the bustling restaurant to a halt, the manager opens and reads it. As it turns out, the young man has been accepted to college, and because the chain offers college tuition assistance, he'll be able to go.

It ends with the tagline "America’s best first job.™"



But it's that tagline that reveals the biggest misperception about the fast food industry: that it's the domain of teenagers saving for college and working their first job. While anumber of fast food chains besides McDonald's have begun tooffer tuition assistance, including Chipotle andPizza Hut, the reality is that for most of its employees, McDonald's is not their first job.

It's more likely to be one of several jobs they have, and most are far past college age. In fact, according to research by the National Employment Law Project from 2013, the average age of fast food workers is 29. Beyond that, 31 percent have at least some college in their past, over a quarter are parents, and as many as half have another job, because virtually no restaurant pays anywhere near enough to live on without another source of income.

Far from the stereotypical image of teens flipping burgers during their summers between schools,the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that just 30 percent of fast food workers are age 19 and under. Beyond that, they found the age range with the most representation in fast food was 25 to 54. Many of these workers had to take fast food work because of job loss during the recent recession, and not all of them were able to get back into the job market.

Speculation in the advertising industry was that the ad campaign touting McDonald's as "America's best first job" for people just entering the workforce was a response to the Fight for $15 campaign, which had organized workers to demand higher wages from the fast food industry. 

Unsurprisingly, McDonald's sees the situation differently. Company spokeswoman Andrea Abate gave a statement to ATTN: that made clear that while they know not everyone there is a first time seeker, their tuition reimbursement program is available to all employees, not just college-aged workers. The statement reads:

For hundreds of thousands, a job at McDonald’s is their very first and our world-class training and education programs begin building the skills first time workers will need to succeed in the workforce. Additionally, eligible employees (at both company-owned and participating franchised restaurants) can take free high school completion classes, get upfront college tuition assistance and learn English as a second language. In just two years, we are proud that over 17,000 employees have participated in this extended learning. These important investments in our people show why we are committed to being America’s best first job.

The myth of fast food jobs being primarily for teenagers is just one that writer Michelle Chen chronicled for the Washington Post. An expert in workers' rights and labor law, Chen ran down a number of other fast food popular misconceptions including:

  • Employees can work their way up and eventually even own a franchise.
  • Fast-food companies can’t control franchise wages or working conditions.
  • Flipping burgers is an easy job.
  • Paying workers $15 an hour would make burgers prohibitively costly and hurt the industry.

But the most persistent myth is that fast food workers are teens seeking pocket money for college. While their efforts to send employees to college are praiseworthy, McDonald's has still been criticizedfor failing to take into account the more advanced age of its newer workforce,pay workers a living wage, and for setting implausible financial goals for employees.

And that's a situation that even tuition reimbursement doesn't change for many middle-aged workers.