In 2000, roughly half of American teenagers held summer jobs. Whether they were behind the counter at fast-food restaurants or bagging groceries, or occupying more seasonal roles such as serving as lifeguards or scooping ice cream, they were working.
This summer, by contrast, only about 35% of America's teenagers will be working, according to a report from Pew Research Center. That's somewhat surprising, because the overall labor market is strong, with the official unemployment rate hovering at record or near-record lows. That should, in theory, mean there's high demand for workers of any age who could fill lower-level positions.
Teen employment trends
Pew examined the average employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds during June, July, and August, using non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Teen employment jumps in the summer, usually peaking in July, which makes sense, given that high schools and colleges generally end in June and start again in late August or early September.
"From the late 1940s, which is as far back as the data go, through the 1980s, teen summer employment followed a fairly regular pattern: rising during economic good times and falling during and after recessions, but generally fluctuating between 46% (the low, in 1963) and 58% (the peak, in 1978)," wrote Pew's Drew DeSilver.
That pattern changed at the start of the 21st century. Teen summer employment, which had hovered around 50% throughout the 1990s, dropped sharply after the 2001 recession. It fell again after the 2007-2009 recession, when only about 30% of teens worked during the summer months. The numbers have recovered somewhat, but only reached 35% last summer -- still well below pre-recession levels despite the strong economy and a low official unemployment rate.
Why is this happening?
Pew's research shows that broader conditions in the job market are partly to blame for why fewer teenagers are working. There are fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs available, and the so-called retail apocalypse has dampened demand for teen workers in that sector. In addition, more schools are staying in session until late June, then starting up again before Labor Day, and a greater percentage of students are taking classes during the summer, according to Pew.
There has also been an increase in teenagers taking on "unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't count as being employed," according to the report.
Of the teens 6.2 million teens who worked last summer, about one third (33.8%) worked in "accommodation and food services" (restaurants and hotels) up from 22.6% in 2000. Only 1.3 million teenagers worked retail jobs in 2017, according to the Pew study, down from more than 2 million in 2000.
Is this a pattern we want to reverse?
Employment trends suggest that many more low-skilled jobs could be lost to automation. The need for cashiers and order takers will probably continue to diminish as more of those tasks are delegated to machines. The same is likely to happen with a growing fraction of fast-food meal preparation, and even some retail warehouse work that teenagers might once have performed.
This change may lead many teenagers to alter how they use their summers. Those who don't absolutely need to work may shift their focus to gaining skills that will help them over the longer term. That could mean interning, taking classes, or apprenticing in a trade they hope to one day work in.
The U.S. labor market of tomorrow will almost certainly feature a shrinking fraction of retail jobs, and the overall demand for low-skill workers will probably never rebound. That means that, in a few years, when today's teens are entering the job market in earnest, they will face an environment more demanding than the one their parents encountered. Summer breaks may soon be dedicated less toward earning some short-term spending money, and more toward preparing for that future.
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