1.5 Million Teens are Struggling in the Job Market

Rodney Johnson |


One of my first paid jobs was washing dishes in the restaurant of a Holiday Inn. I was 13, and lied on the application to say that I was 16 – the minimum age they would accept. It wasn’t a glamorous position, but it did provide a paycheck. And it came with all of the vagaries you’d expect from such a job – unpleasant working conditions, the requirement to always be on time, shifts scheduled when I’d rather be hanging out with friends, and the proverbial bad boss.

I meandered through a number of jobs in my teen years, learning what was expected of me as an employee and how to work within corporate structures along the way.

These lessons were invaluable as I went off to college and looked for part-time work as a student, and then when I sought a full-time position as a graduate.

When I look at my own kids, it reminds me that we live in a very different world today. My kids are home for the summer. I don’t even need to witness their presence to confirm this fact. All I have to do is look in my refrigerator to check how much food is available.

If the cupboard is bare, then the young adults with voracious appetites that strike late at night must be home. I was reminded of this as I rummaged through the slim pickings in my house for lunch today. Then I was struck by another thought: Why aren’t they working?

It’s not that they lounge around all day. They fill countless hours with volunteer work, teaching at-risk elementary students and helping with sports camps, as well as typical summertime activities like going to the beach. But none of them brings home a paycheck.

When I compare their schedules to those of their friends, they’re about the same. A few of them work, mostly at part-time jobs a few hours a week, while the majority of them spend their time on volunteer work and internships.

This is a far cry from how I spent my summers in high school and college, but now it looks like the norm. It’s not that my kids don’t want to work. I know they have applied for many different jobs. But the nature of seasonal work seems to have changed.

A Slim Job Market is Leaving Teens Behind

While there are still plenty of young people working as lifeguards, golf caddies, and retail help, the ranks of young employees have thinned in recent years. The latest job report bears this out. In June of this year, the unemployment rate for workers 16 to 19 years old was 18.1%, or just over one-in-six. That’s up from the June 2007 figure of 16.3%.

Still, it could be worse. If nothing else, it’s down significantly from its worst level of the downturn, which was 27.2% in October of 2009.

But the slightly higher unemployment rate doesn’t tell the whole story. There were more kids unemployed even though there were fewer kids available for work in the first place.

While the unemployment rate among this group rose from June 2007 to June of this year, the number of them in the population dropped by 364,000 to 16,613,000.

That’s not a big difference. But the number of kids in this pool of possible workers who are participating in the labor force – meaning those actually working or applying for work – dropped by 1,515,000 during the same time frame. Now that’s a big change!

It’s possible that the families of those 1.5 million teenagers are comfortable enough to where the kids have no interest in work. In this economy, though, that’s doubtful.

What’s more likely is that these young people believe there are no jobs available for them, so they simply don’t put a lot of effort into looking. Considering the work environment they are growing up in, who can blame them? But by checking out of the paid workforce, these kids are missing a lot of employment education that can help them down the road.

We all travel up a learning curve through life as an employee, a subordinate, and a coworker, as these experiences present themselves. Getting a taste of these situations earlier provides people with a chance to clear some of the hurdles associated with work, as well as to make mistakes while the ramifications are still limited.

The longer people wait, whether of their own choice or by circumstance, the harder these lessons can be, and the more detrimental a few mistakes can be to their early careers. Of course, in addition to valuable experience in their teen years, gainful employment also offers that extra bonus of actual pay. That would be most welcome in my house. Then, maybe those teens could go out and buy their own meals, and leave my leftovers alone.

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