What Happens When American Teenagers Can’t Find Work

Employment rates for teenagers are at the lowest levels since World War II. And that could hurt their longterm job prospects.

McDonald's employees wait to take orders during a one-day hiring event at a McDonald's restaurant on April 19, 2011 in San Francisco, California.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 9, 2014, 1 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a series for Next Eco­nomy on Amer­ic­an teen­agers and em­ploy­ment.

Most Amer­ic­ans love to re­min­isce about their first pay­ing job, wheth­er it was scoop­ing ice cream, babysit­ting, or work­ing be­hind a re­tail counter. It was rarely glam­or­ous, but earn­ing that first paycheck was a point of pride and marked a mile­stone in a teen­ager’s life.

By the time An­drew Sum entered his teen­age years, he’d already held a job de­liv­er­ing news­pa­pers. Now as an eco­nom­ist, one of his chief con­cerns is the state of the labor mar­ket for today’s teen­agers. The em­ploy­ment rates for teen­agers, ages 16 to 19, plummeted from 45 per­cent in 2000 to just 26 per­cent in 2011, ac­cord­ing to Sum’s re­cent re­search for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion. That’s the low­est rate of teen em­ploy­ment in the post-World War II era.

The teens hard­est hit by the tough labor mar­ket also hap­pen to be the least for­tu­nate ones: those with less edu­ca­tion, from poorer house­holds, or from minor­ity back­grounds. Teens whose par­ents earned more than $40,000 a year boas­ted em­ploy­ment rates of 26 to 28 per­cent, while teens whose par­ents made less than that threshold, were em­ployed at rates of less than 20 per­cent.

These signs fore­shad­ow po­ten­tially an­oth­er sum­mer in which too many teen­agers are un­able to find work, years after the re­ces­sion of­fi­cially ended. “Kids are less likely to work now, and the range of in­dus­tries they work in is smal­ler—like re­tail, trade, or fast food. That massively re­duces the num­ber of kids on the payrolls,” says Sum, who also dir­ects the Cen­ter for Labor Mar­ket Stud­ies at North­east­ern Uni­versity in Bo­ston. It does not help that teen­agers now in­creas­ingly com­pete against adults for min­im­um-wage po­s­i­tions.

These data points about low teen em­ploy­ment spell ter­rible things for the long-term health of the Amer­ic­an eco­nomy. Study after study shows that early work ex­per­i­ence helps teens and young adults build con­fid­ence and pick up cru­cial soft skills, like how to ar­rive at work on-time and not ir­rit­ate one’s boss. Ideally, those are skills one wants to learn be­fore the mid-20s. “The res­ults are over­whelm­ing,” Sum says. “The more you work as a teen­ager, the more likely you are to work five years from now. That’s true at the state or na­tion­al level. When young people don’t get work ex­per­i­ence, it in­hib­its their wages.”

Or as Neil Sul­li­van, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of a Bo­ston work­force non-profit ar­gues, sound­ing an­oth­er alarm: “The con­sequences for Amer­ic­an com­pet­it­ive­ness are pro­found. You hear it an­ec­dot­ally from em­ploy­ers and from or­gan­iz­a­tions in Mas­sachu­setts. When we talk about youth de­vel­op­ment, part of that is to learn to speak ef­fect­ively to adults.”

As gloomy as Sum’s pa­per sounds, he does of­fer up page-after-page of policy ideas based on suc­cess­ful pro­grams at the state and city level. Among those pre­scrip­tions: In­cor­por­at­ing more ap­pren­tice­ships and in­tern­ships in­to edu­ca­tion­al set­tings; giv­ing teen­agers ac­cess to skills train­ing that a par­tic­u­lar re­gion will need in the fu­ture; and more ro­bust ca­reer coun­sel­ing to make teens think ahead. That sounds far more com­plic­ated than find­ing a job sli­cing ba­gels at a loc­al shop. But it may be what’s needed for teens to grow in­to adults who, by 2020, can get ahead.

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