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Why Don’t American Teens Work Summer Jobs Anymore?

The number of teenagers who work over summer break has plummeted dramatically over the past 20 years.

In the year 2000, over half of the teenagers in the United States worked some kind of summer job. Last summer, that number was down to 35 percent. According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, the number of teenagers working jobs over summer break has plummeted dramatically over the last 20 years, and it offers a relatively straightforward reason why: the jobs simply aren’t there. And when they are, teens either don’t want them or are getting beat out by unemployed adults.

The study arrived at this conclusion by looking at the employment-to-population ratio for teenagers between the ages of 16- and 19-years-old during the months of June, July, and August. Typically, teen employment spikes in July but follows the country’s general economic ebb and flow the rest of the year. When times are good, a lot of teens work. When times are tough, just as with adults, they don’t. In 1963, the teen employment rate fell as low as 46 percent. In 1978, it peaked at 58 percent.

Generally, teen employment has almost always fluctuated between those two percentages. The study suggests, however, that the trend of fewer teens entering the summer workforce started its decline in the early ’90s when the rate hovered around 50 percent. In fact, some economists believe the 1991 recession left enough lingering effects that the teen summer employment rate was never able to recover much above that 50 percent mark. By the time the 2001 recession hit, the number was on the decline and continued downward through the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Teen employment hit its lowest point, 30 percent, in the summer of  2010 and 2011.

The study suggests that while the current unemployment rate is at historic lows, the number of unskilled jobs in the workforce has also decreased. Not only that but schools are closing later in June (and starting earlier in August), and more teens are also doing internships or community service to both prepare for college or meet high-school graduation requirements. Of the teens who do find work, many are employed in the food or service industry ⏤ the only industry to see an increase in the number of teens working summer jobs.

The number of teens working in food service is about 34 percent, and adults are actually more likely to work in fast food than teens at this point. And that’s the other big issue: more adults are working the hourly low-skill jobs that teens used to do. Meanwhile, many teens today are more entrepreneurially minded than ever before. According to a global consumer study of generation Z by NRF and IBM, 22 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds say they make money online and 16 percent say they work for themselves. Moreover, teens are less interested in working in general. Only one in ten unemployed teens actually wants a job.

Ultimately, this boils down to a changing economic landscape. In the face of automation, the adult employees of billion-dollar industries are worried about their future. When the generation of people who raise teens are struggling to find gainful employment, why would their kids have better luck? The study also found that declining teen summer employment is a global trend, and not just limited to the U.S. market. Combine all of these factors with the developing teen attitude that being unemployed isn’t automatically a bad thing and the fact that they aren’t working as much makes sense.