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Why fewer kids work the kind of summer jobs that their parents used to have

The summer jobs of the days of old are becoming fewer and fewer. Paulette Kaytor/

Back in the day, most teens had some sort of job lined up for the summer. For some, it was an extension of an after-school job they held during the year. For others, it was a seasonal type of job such as working at a drugstore or as a lifeguard in a pool.

Recently, however, that seems to be no longer the case.

While the presence of teenagers in the summer workforce in July 1978 was at 72 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey reported a July 2016 teen labor force participation rate of 43 percent. A recent report by the Pew Research Center analyzed the average summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in June, July and August 2017 and found that only 35 percent of teens has a summer job.

So, what has happened? Speaking as a scholar who studies generational workforce changes, I can say that there isn’t just one answer but several.

Are today’s teens lazier?

A 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics white paper provides some reasons that might account for the downward trend in teen employment, including increased summer school attendance, increased parental emphasis on education and competition from other demographic sectors.

One common stereotype is that teens have become lazier. In addition, it’s a ubiquitous observation that teens are tethered to technology and have higher obesity rates than in the past. Both of those contribute to the stereotype. However, 2016 data on “NEETs,” young people who are “Neither in Education, Employment, or Training,” put their number at just 7 percent. The relatively stable and low NEET percentage runs contrary to the idea that today’s teens are lazier.

The role of the gig economy

One explanation is that it’s difficult to track employment in today’s gig economy. For example, a teenager may be working building a website for her aunt’s small business and managing the Instagram account for 10 hours a week. Yet, she will fly below the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ radar and is not likely to be counted as employed.

A second explanation may be a function of changes in the national economy and workforce. For example there is the “Amazon effect.” While in the past, jobs selling T-shirts at the mall or boardwalk were quite common, more people are buying their “stuff” online. As a result, retailers and small shops can likely get by with their existing workforce. So, those jobs are not in abundant supply.

Furthermore, Christopher L. Smith of the Federal Reserve has conducted research that found lesser-educated immigrants are taking on jobs that were traditionally teen-occupied summer jobs. Interestingly, there is also competition from older workers who either remain in the workforce longer or are willing to take “bridge” jobs. In 2015, the percentage of participation in the labor force for those 55 and older was 39 percent, compared to 34 percent for those ages 16 to 19.

In some cases, more young people have been interested in nonpaying educational, experiential or social justice programs. Additionally, there is an ongoing interest in “camps” that combine focus on certain skills like coding and writing with some physical activity.

Higher education quests

Other high schoolers may be taking summer courses to better position themselves for college. This is likely more of a factor in middle- to upper-class families for whom a college-bound trajectory is more automatic, yet is perceived as highly competitive by helicopter parents who are often hyper-involved in facilitating the college goal in high school and as far back as day care.

In addition, there are now clearinghouses for travel opportunities and social justice missions which have become more popular among not only college students but also high schoolers. Having one or more of these on a college application is deemed by teens and parents to possibly be the necessary edge to get into an elite college. In fact, according to Andy Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, a national firm that follows workplace trends, parents are not exactly pushing their kids out the door. “Their parents aren’t forcing them to get a job,” Challenger said. “Parents are saying there are other things you can do over the summer that will create value for you – and you don’t have to go flip burgers.”

Finally, there are problems regarding how employers view young workers in general. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 89.4 percent of recent graduates rated themselves as proficient in their work ethic and professionalism. Yet, only 42.5 percent of employers shared that view.

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