Teenagers can’t afford to have summer jobs anymore

Head down.
Head down.
Image: Unsplash/Ben White
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The days of teenage lifeguards, camp counselors, and cashiers might soon be over. In the US, the teen labor force participation rate is at an all-time low—only one in three teenagers either have a job or intend to get one. By 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that only one in four teens will actively seek work. Back in 2000, around half of 16 to 19-year-olds were working or looking for a job.

Teenage jobs are an iconic part of the American coming-of-age experience. They feature prominently in high school-centric flicks like Mean Girls, High School Musical 2, and Step Up. Even a recent show focused on bullying and mental health, 13 Reasons Why, set the main characters’ meet-cute behind a popcorn counter, where they both worked.

Since peaking in the late 1970s, teen labor force participation has been drifting downwards, with sharper declines around recessions followed by modest recoveries. But since 2000, the share of teens looking for work has fallen by half, with no recovery in sight.

What happened? Christopher L. Smith, an economist at the Federal Reserve, believes that an influx of lower-educated foreign workers have partially replaced teenagers in the workforce. He found that a 10% increase (pdf) in the number of immigrants reduced the number of teens with jobs by 2.5%. Moreover, lower-educated immigrants—a group that more than doubled in US commuting zones between 1985 and 2005—were much more likely to compete for jobs with American teens than adults.

But many teens aren’t discouraged—they just don’t want to work.

What are they doing instead? Going to school.

In 2012, year-round enrollment in education hit an all time high. While it’s dipped slightly since, three in every four teens are now attending school year-round. According to recent surveys, close to half of American teens are now engaged in an educational activity in July—either school or an enrichment program. In 1985, only 10% gave up prime vacation time or a summer job for more studies.

Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. Today, 80% of teens study geometry, 70% study chemistry, and close to 90% study a foreign language. In 1982, less than half of teens completed basic high-school math courses and only one in three took chemistry. It’s not a coincidence that high-school academic achievement has risen in recent decades as teenagers have sought more studies instead of work.

Teens might not have a choice. College degrees have become an increasingly essential factor to getting any sort of job, so it’s also not surprising that parents appear to prioritize studies over work experience. This anxiety is justified, especially since 99% of jobs (pdf) created during the most recent post-recession recovery went to workers with at least a partial college education.

At the same time, the academic demands now placed on teens are intense, and potentially harmful. The financial stress that year-round studies, instead of work, puts on families is also significant.

Take the Brandeis Global Youth Summit, a summer bootcamp for teens with aspirations in medicine. The weeklong program costs $3,000 and offers 20 to 30 spots paid for by scholarships. Paulina Kuzmin, a former director of the program, was astounded by the number of applications for these spots, and the earnest letters from parents that accompanied them.

When Kuzmin did not award a scholarship to an applicant who had a 4.0 grade point average and participated in multiple after-school activities, her mother was so distraught that she wrote in and negotiated to pay half the camp’s fee, if the program could cover the rest. Kuzmin later learned that the mother made just $30,000 a year, so the cost of the camp represented a significant share of the family’s earnings.

In addition to the academic pressure this puts on teenagers, not everyone believes this stronger emphasis on educational enrichment and college-bound competency is a good thing, especially if it precludes teens from ever getting a job. Work can build discipline and provide exposure to workplace culture early in life—and even promote higher scholastic achievement and college enrollment in the process.

Kuzmin herself worked a job to pay for her car in high school, and put away $10,000 towards college. While she acknowledged that the financial freedom was a plus, the most valuable outcome from working menial jobs as a teenager was something else: “It really put into perspective just how badly I needed to go to college.”