Who Pays When Teens Are Out Of Work?

Most American adults are enjoying higher family incomes than their parents did, but that may be temporary. Reports show that teenagers across the country are having a hard time finding a summer job, and the long-term consequences for American society could be severe. Guest host Maria Hinojosa talks with NPR Senior Business Editor Marilyn Geewax about the drought in summer employment for teens.

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MARIA HINOJOSA, HOST:

I'm Maria Hinojosa, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, murders in Chicago are on the rise. We'll ask why and what's being done about it. That's in a few minutes.

But, first, to matters of personal finance. Remember pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps? Well, economic mobility is getting tougher in this country, especially for the poorest people in our society. That's according to a new Pew Research report released on Monday.

And for many Americans, those inequities start at the very beginning of their working lives. Adolescents across the country are having a hard time finding summer jobs. So how could that affect their economic futures? Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax.

Welcome back.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi, Maria.

HINOJOSA: So give us a breakdown of that Pew report. It's titled: "Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations."

GEEWAX: Well, they broke the population into different segments - the poorest group, the lower-middle class, and so on - and they looked across time, and what they found is that most Americans actually do earn a little more than their parents did when you adjust for inflation and looking at them at the same age.

We are getting a little bit richer because, basically, we're better-educated. People are more skilled, and they get a little more money than their parents did. But when you look at the issue of mobility, do people earn enough to change class? That's more challenging. You can make more money than your parents, but trying to jump classes is a tough thing, and the toughest group is for the poorest people.

HINOJOSA: So what's going on now in terms of teens and jobs this summer?

GEEWAX: It's terrible. Let's take a look at just what's happened over the last 20, 30, 40 years, even. Back in the '60s and '70s, teenagers worked a lot. There were new fast food restaurants opening up. People needed lawns mowed. If you look at a year like 1978, teenagers - about 60 percent were working in, you know, paying jobs. And when I'm saying teenagers, I'm referring to 16 to 19-year-olds, the older kids.

And, today, it's down to about only three in 10 are now working in paying jobs. So that's a dramatic drop from 60 percent to 30 percent.

HINOJOSA: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Maria Hinojosa. We're talking about teens and summer jobs and the hurdles in trying to find one. Our guest is NPR's senior business editor, Marilyn Geewax.

So what do you do? I mean, we were talking before, because I'm very lucky. Both of my teens, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, have jobs. Woo-hoo. So I'm content they're getting this experience of getting up during the summer, having to go to a job, working even longer hours than when they were in school.

What about the teenagers - what happens when they don't have that opportunity? What kind of setbacks does that cause?

GEEWAX: You do need to get those early job experiences, in many cases, to get yourself well launched. It helps you learn teamwork, self-discipline. The alarm goes off. You have to get out of bed, get to work. You understand the value of a paycheck better when you've earned it yourself, standing on your feet all day. So economists will look at young workers and say, it is important to get those early work experiences. And yet, as I said, only about three in 10 are getting that kind of work experience.

And there are lots of reasons for why this has happened. It's not just the bad economy. But there are big changes happening in society that all put downward pressure on teen jobs.

HINOJOSA: So in terms of the kinds of jobs that teens used to do, could do now - there's a lot of technological advancement. But what other things have changed? Can you give us a couple of examples?

GEEWAX: Well, there's two things happening. One is the professionalization of a lot of jobs that teenagers used to do. Instead of just mowing lawns by going and knocking on your neighbor's door, a lot of people have professional lawn services. They have daycare centers instead of babysitters.

But another thing is technology is changing. You know, if you think back, for some of the older folks, you used to get a sticker on each item in the grocery store. In most stores now, there's just a bar code that tells you what the price is. So those kinds of simple jobs, the things that 16-year-olds could do, putting stickers on boxes, those jobs have been withdrawn because of changes in technology. And that's a trend that is going to continue. It's hard for unskilled labor to find jobs these days.

HINOJOSA: Let's take a listen to one of our Facebook fans who wanted to share their own stories about teens and summer jobs. So Retha Hill(ph) of Phoenix, Arizona wrote to us, and here's what she had to say about teens and summer jobs.

RETHA HILL: I had to take the week off this past week so I could drive my nine-year-old from his day camp to a one week robotics camp about three miles away. I would have loved to have a reliable teen driver who could do that one thing for me.

HINOJOSA: So what do you make about that?

GEEWAX: Well, part of the problem for this, also, is that young people are often, in the - sort of the better kids, shall we say, the ones with the best grade point averages and the...

HINOJOSA: The one who you would trust your car with.

GEEWAX: The one you'd most want to give your car keys to...

HINOJOSA: Right, right.

GEEWAX: ...is much more likely now to go to these camps that are offered in the summer. That is, you can go to a camp to learn how to make software applications for iPhones.

HINOJOSA: They're called app camps.

GEEWAX: App camps. Or you could go and take a math class to get yourself ahead. Parents want the best for their children. Everybody does. And if you can afford to send your kid off to these summer camps to learn various skills, that's going to help them get into college, and that's a good thing, too. So a lot of those kids who have access to a car, who have good grades, who are really the reliable kids are actually in sports practice, band practice, math class, whatever. The summers - they're just withdrawing from the workforce. So it makes it tougher for people to find kids for this kind of casual work that used to exist.

HINOJOSA: All right. Finally, I want to talk about the government's role in all of this. On Monday, we called U.S. Department of Labor Chief Economist Adriana Kugler, and she told us about the summer jobs program that began this year.

ADRIANA KUGLER: We have a jobs bank in the Department of Labor website. There are about 300,000 commitments at this point, and a third of them are actually commitments for paid jobs to young people. We know that these work experiences early in life are very important to help people do later in their working lives, and how much they earn later in life.

HINOJOSA: So, Marilyn, when you sum it up in terms of teen jobs, what does this mean for our economy and for the future of our country and for these kids?

GEEWAX: The real problem is the kids on the lower end. They're the ones who don't have a car, so they've got to look for a job in their neighborhood. And in a tough economy like this, they're finding very few jobs. And when they do go to apply for a job, they are in competition with older students who are paying off loans and with adults who are seeking jobs because they're losing their unemployment benefits.

So the competition is tougher, and there's also one other factor. There are these things called J-1 visas, where the State Department allows a lot of foreign students to come for the summer. And there are about 100,000 kids who are working in that summer program competing directly with American kids. So that's a problem, too.

HINOJOSA: Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. She joined us here in our Washington studio. Marilyn, thanks for joining us.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.

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