Photo: Bavorndej (iStock)

It took a minute for me to let this fact sink in: Members of Gen Z are old enough to work. (Please let’s all pause and polish our bifocals.) Gen Z is the generation younger than Millennials, representing people born between 1997 and 2012, and the oldest of those are new members of the workforce. And they represent what Nation’s Restaurant News calls a “looming crisis” for restaurants.

That’s because the industry is expected to create 1.6 million jobs over the next decade, but the portion of the population restaurants have typically relied on to fill those will decline by 1.3 million among Gen Z.

“So if you think it’s bad now–if you think the fight to talent is difficult now–it is going to get even a lot worse,” National Restaurant Association Education Foundation executive vice president Rob Gifford told NRN.

It’s not just a numbers game, though. Gen Z workers who have been employed in restaurants often don’t stick in those roles, a newly commissioned survey shows. The full report, conducted by the NRAEF and the Center For Generational Kinetics, won’t be released until next month, but one finding already has restaurants sweating: 82 percent of employed Gen Z survey-takers said their first job was in a restaurant, but about three-quarters did not remain in the industry.

That was my experience, as a millennial (which is old now, I guess. Pardon me while I apply for AARP). I worked for five years in two different restaurant jobs, but after college, I never went back to the industry. I learned a lot from those jobs about teamwork, multitasking, handling pressure, and polishing glassware. But there were the late nights, the inconsistent wages, the sore legs, the variable schedules. And I don’t recall many of my generation ever being encouraged to pursue restaurant work—maybe other than culinary school, which was becoming glamorized by cable cooking shows—as a career path. If the restaurant industry wants to attract the fickle and few Gen Z workers, it needs to prove that it’s a field in which a person can make a living—for life.

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