Why Teens Aren’t Working—And How It Influences the Workforce

Labor participation among teens in the summer continues to fall. How does that impact the workforce of the future?

by Lauren Dixon

The classic teen summer job is no longer in fashion.

In 1979, 57.9 percent of teenagers held a job, a number that fell to 52 percent in 2000 and has and plummeted even more to around 34 percent in 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Looking ahead, teen employment is not expected to improve, according to BLS data.

Multiple factors impact teenage employment, but the most obvious is schooling. “They are paying attention to education during the summer,” said Teresa Morisi, a branch chief in the office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Summer enrollment was four times higher in 2016 than in 1985, Morisi found. Students are also spending their summers studying for advanced courses and preparing to attend college immediately after completing their senior year. Moreover, summers are ending earlier than they used to, with many high schools opening before Labor Day, Morisi found, adding that some education programs now require volunteering as well.

Coursework is more difficult than years past, too. According to Morisi’s research, “The National Commission on Excellence in Education recommended in 1983 that all college-bound students take the following as a minimum during 4 years of high school: 4 years of English; 3 years each of social studies, science, and mathematics; 2 years of a foreign language; and one-half year of computer science.” In 1982, 9.5 percent of high school graduates completed that combination of schooling; in 2009, 61.8 percent of high school graduates fulfilled this recommendation.

Internships also now account for more of teens’ time during the summer, as they work to improve their resumes and college or graduate school applications, according to “The Early 2000s: A Period of Declining Teen Summer Employment Rates,” written by Morisi in 2010. “If youths are increasingly holding unpaid internships instead of paid positions, then fewer would be counted as employed,” the report said. An increase in dual-income families means more young people have affluent parents who are “more willing to have their children participate in school and extracurricular activities instead of working for pay,” the report went on to say.

Competition from older workers makes it difficult to find summer employment in the first place. “Many older workers, even after they retire from their career job, they come back into the labor force, and they can compete for these types of jobs,” Morisi said.

Employers opt for these older workers for a variety of reasons, including a rise in minimum wage, said Denise Bryant, director of workforce services at the Denver Office of Economic Development. Employers who face these higher payroll costs want more permanent and experienced workers to improve their return on that increased wage, Bryant said.

Impacts on the Future Workforce

Without job experience early in life, young workers could fall behind when it comes to learning about work ethic, work etiquette and building self-esteem. “Now, you’re talking about a generation that won’t have that going into the workforce,” Bryant said. When these young people do attain a professional position, their co-workers will likely be less empathetic when mistakes happen. “They’ve missed their opportunity to really make mistakes and learn from just the basic aspects of work,” Bryant said.

Minority populations become most impacted by these trends, as the Pew Research Center found that white teens are most likely to have summer employment. Without a change to this, fewer opportunities will continue going to other groups, who already face higher unemployment than white populations. “What will happen is that the diversity and inclusion aspects of the workplace just won’t be. You’ll have a generation of individuals who will miss out,” Bryant said.

Some cities are working to remedy this, with some success. The National Bureau of Economic Research examined impacts of Chicago programs that pair mentors and part-time summer jobs, finding little changes to the participants’ employment and education later in life, but violent crime dipped 42 percent for one program and 33 percent for another. “Brief youth employment programs can generate substantively important behavioral change,” the study said.

In Denver, Bryant is working with public schools and local businesses for the city’s Operation Perfect Beginnings. Based on student interest, three teens pair with CEOs and receive a summer stipend while they observe the workplace and gain business acumen. Also, coding camps the city hosts place six young women in training to gain coding credentials, which they can use to find jobs in college or during the summer, Bryant said. These programs also include financial literacy and teach young workers how to budget and read their paychecks, further preparing them for the working world, Bryant added.

For business leaders to get involved, Bryant suggested first working with school districts and workforce centers, which she said most major cities have. These partnerships will help to spark the interests of young people for when they hunt for full-time positions in the future, and they can fill those roles from which baby boomers are retiring.

Business leaders will essentially be growing the next generation of workers, Bryant said. “They can expose the future generation and the future workforce to their industry, to their business model and not only get them interested in that, but also spark some creativity and innovations. As they age, who knows what ideas they’ll bring to the table,” she said.



Originally published June 30, 2017 by Talent Economy.  Lauren Dixon is an associate editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.

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