Why Aren’t American Teenagers Working Anymore?

The decline of the summer job.

Summer is finally drawing to a close, and on average, American teenagers who wanted jobs found it a little easier to land one than teens in recent years.

The unemployment rate dropped to 4.3% percent right before the summer kicked off for Memorial Day, the making it the lowest rate in nearly 16 years.  That meant teens seeking summer jobs were hunting in the best labor market since the tech boom of the early 2000s. The May unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 14.3%. But teens typically find it more challenging to land a job than their more experienced elders. Back in 2009, the jobless rate among teenagers hit 27%.

A recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder involving 2,587 employers found that 41% planned to hire seasonal workers over the summer, up a whopping 29% over the previous year.

However, employment measures joblessness only for people who report they are actively seeking work. And an unprecedented number of American teens aren’t even bothering.

Back in the youth of Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, landing a summer job was a rite of passage. Today, however, teenagers have other priorities. Teens are most likely to have a job in July, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet in July of last year, 43% of 16- to 19-year-olds were either working or looking for a job. That’s 10 points lower than figures from July 2006. In 1988 and 1989, the July labor force participation rate for teens was at 70%.

Whether one considers summer jobs or year-round teen employment, labor trends for teenagers exhibit a clear pattern over the past 30 years. When recessions hit, in the early 1990s, early 2000s, and from 2007 to 2009, teen labor participation rates take a nose-dive. Then when the economy bounces back, teen employment doesn’t recover with it. By 2024, the BLS expects teen labor force participation rates to drop below 27%, or 30 points below the peak seasonally-adjusted rate in 1989.

So why aren’t teens working? A number of theories have been put forward: they’re being pushed out of the workforce by older Americans, who now tend to keep working past 65 at higher rates than we’ve seen in the past 50 years. Immigrants are also competing with teens for jobs; a 2012 study found that immigrants with lower levels of education impacted employment levels for U.S. native-born teenagers to a greater degree than for native-born adults. Parents emphasize volunteering and extracurricular activities over working as a way to beef up resumes for college admissions. College-bound teens are less concerned with securing work for money since it doesn’t go as far as it used to anyway. “Teen earnings are low and pay little toward the costs of college,” the BLS noted this year. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Elite private universities charge tuition of more than $50,000.

And then perhaps teenagers are just getting lazy, as cranky grown-ups have been arguing for generations.

A recent BLS study puts forward another theory, backed up by ample data. It seems that millions of teenagers have opted out of traditional jobs because they’re studying instead.

During the past few decades, education has taken over an increasing portion of teenagers’ lives, as school districts lengthen both the school day and the academic year. Over the course of the school year, academic requirements have increased. Education is also eating into summer months. Teenagers aren’t taking summer classes just because they failed a class and need to catch up. They’re also signing up for enrichment credits they can apply toward college.

During July of last year, over 2 in 5 teens were enrolled in school. That’s 4 times more than were enrolled in summer school in 1985, BLS data show.

Students also have to cram in more learning during their four years of high school. In 1982, fewer than ten percent of high school graduates had completed at least four years of English classes, three years of math, science, and social science, and two years of a foreign language. By 2009, the most recent data in the U.S. Digest of Education Statistics, the share of grads taking those classes was nearly 62%.

Not only are high school students taking additional classes. They’re also enrolled in tougher ones. Trends in math curriculum suggest what’s happened in other disciplines as well. Calculus enrollment has shot up threefold since the early 1980s, while pre-calculus is up more than fivefold, and statistics and probability courses are up tenfold. Nearly one million students graduated in 2009 having taken an advanced placement (AP) class, up nearly 40% from just four years earlier.

All this studying yields clear benefits, but a one-dimensional focus on education has its drawbacks, too. A summer job can help young people grow up by­­­ expanding their experiences beyond the classroom and home-life. Teens with jobs learn how to manage money, interact with bosses, and get along with co-workers of many ages and backgrounds.

Summer jobs have even been shown to save lives. In a study this past summer conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers evaluated the effects of 2 Chicago programs that offered students part-time jobs along with mentors over the summer. The programs didn’t have a measurable effect on employment or education for teens in the long run, but arrests for violent crime plunged, by 42% for one program and 33% for the other, an effect that lasted for up to a year after the programs ended. If teens got nothing else out of the jobs programs, they were at least “learning to better avoid or manage conflict.”

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Emery Reddy