Summertime And The Livin’ Is Easy for Nonworking Teens

Summertime And The Livin’ Is Easy for Nonworking Teens August 23, 2018

Up to now, it’s all been anecdotal. For the past several years I’ve listened as employers in my South Dakota town of 15,000 bemoan how hard it is to employ teens — and keep them — and that even the kids who stay seem disinterested in actually working.

unemployed teens
Teen summer lifeguards compete in a skill test in Longport, New Jersey, 2013. (Kevin Jarrett, Flikr, CC BY 2.0)

One newly opened restaurant in town quickly closed because the owners said they couldn’t find enough employees to hire. The lone teen working at a Chinese restaurant my wife and I frequented until it closed was the daughter of an immigrant Cambodian family.

Local residents frequently lament how difficult it is even to find high-school kids to mow their lawns and other yard work, as small-town and suburban American teenagers historically have done since at least the 1940s. The summer I turned 14, I worked picking up baseballs at a seedy batting range in Tempe, Arizona, mowed neighbor lawns and was a car hop at a rough drive-in restaurant with fabulous French fries. In 1964, finding summer jobs was normal for me and my friends.

No more, apparently.

Where have all the teens gone?

Turns out, this seemingly sliding trend in teen labor participation in my little city is real, and it’s happening nationwide (even worldwide), according to a new study released in July by the Pew Research Center. It’s titled, “The share of teens with summer jobs has plunged since 2000, and the type of work they do has shifted.”

I bumped into an article about this study in my daily news reading online just after I ran across an August 18 op-ed piece by author K.J. Dell’Antonia in The New York Times Sunday Review titled, “Happy Children Do Chores.”

Despite the stories’ fundamental differences, to me they seem directly related.

The “Happy Children” piece acknowledged virtually all parents’ endemic difficulty in getting their kids to actually do random or assigned chores. But Dell’Antonia insisted that it was an effort worth making because it inevitably leads not only to kids doing chores, but in connecting work with the virtue and satisfaction of helping others and, eventually, parlaying that into greater personal happiness and integrity in life than the un-chored realize.

No ‘magical process’

Dell’Antonia’s advice to parents, of which she is one, is direct. There is no “magical process” to eliciting children’s compliance:

“[B]ecause unfortunately, getting children to do chores is an incredibly simple two-step process: insist, and persist, until the chore is done. Accept no excuses. Don’t worry if you must repeat yourself again and again. If you’re spending more time getting the child to do this job than it would take to do it yourself, then you’re doing it right.”

That was exactly the process my mom and dad used when I was a kid and we were required to clear the table, wash dishes, make our beds, etc. I still hate such chores (they’re called “chores” and not “entertainment” for a reason), but I do them because I can’t stand the mess if I don’t. I also value her generosity when my wife does them and I don’t have to.

Still, this sense of shared communal responsibility, although parents say they believe it’s an important value to foster in their children, doesn’t seem to be getting through to the kids very loudly.

Dell’Antonia notes that a survey by Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd and his colleagues of 10,000 students from 33 American middle and high schools found that “almost 80 percent [of the students surveyed] said they valued their own happiness over caring for others. Most thought their parents would agree.”

The new narcissim

So, this budding narcissism could be seen as partially explaining why far fewer teens are working summer jobs now than did as late as the turn of the millennia. After all, if it’s all about me, I’m going to do what I want or only what I see as good for me personally. Who wants to flip burgers at McDonald’s when you could be preparing to ace your SATs? Am I right?

Why this change in a traditional teen rite of summer? According to the Pew study:

“Researchers have suggested multiple reasons why fewer young people are working: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs (such as sales clerks or office assistants) than in decades past; more schools ending in late June and restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing 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.”

The net result is a dramatic drop-off in working teens. Since 2000, the number of teens with summer jobs fell precipitously by 2017 from roughly 50 percent to about 35 percent, Pew reports. Erosions in the teen workforce were exacerbated by recessions in 2001 and 2008-09, Pew noted, but other factors contributed, such as those listed above.

As of July, the number of teens in the U.S. labor force was 5.7 million, down from 8.1 million in 2000, even though more working-age teens are available now, the Pew survey shows. And 11 million teens (66 percent of those eligible for employment) were outside the labor force altogether last month, compared to only 7.8 million (49.1 percent) in May 2000.

Pew points out that America isn’t an outlier and that this fading trend in teen employment is also being observed in other advanced economies.

So, one good question is, with the Trump administration’s war on immigrants proceeding apace, who is going to take summer jobs if teens and newcomers don’t?

And what is this teaching American teenagers about the value of personal labor and the dollars it provides to them and, in a future when they begin to appreciate such life lessons more fully, their families?

I’m concerned about the direction this is all going.

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