KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A lot of us had summer jobs when we were young, but now things are different. The number of teenagers who have jobs has been steadily dropping over the decades, and now it's as low as ever. Ben Steverman has been reporting on this for Bloomberg, and he's with us now. Welcome to the show.
BEN STEVERMAN: Thanks.
MCEVERS: So first just tell us about the data. Like, what's the actual change in the number of teenagers who are working now from who were working in, say, the '80s?
STEVERMAN: Yeah. If you go back to the '80s and the late '80s especially, you had, like, 70 percent of teenagers - talking about 16- to 19-year-olds - were out in the labor force over the summer. And now it's under half. It's about 40 percent or so.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow.
STEVERMAN: And so every time we have a recession, it seems like unemployment among everyone spikes but especially among teenagers. And then when the economy recovers, those teens don't come back to the workforce, and they're doing other things instead.
MCEVERS: So your piece is called "Why Aren't American Teenagers Working Anymore?" Beyond the data, what is the answer to that question? Why?
STEVERMAN: There's a bunch of valid theories on why exactly teens aren't working. One that I think is interesting is that older workers, people above 65, are working at basically a record rate, the highest rates in 50 years.
STEVERMAN: Older people are healthier and can work longer, and a lot of them need to work longer. And they can end up being much more reliable employees than a teenager who's never had a job before. So if you look at retail, even things like delivering of newspapers, a lot of that's being done by people who are in their late '60s and '70s.
MCEVERS: Oh, wow.
STEVERMAN: So that's one thing that's going on. The other thing is that you have higher number of people born outside the country who are in our labor force now, and some of those jobs - there's actually some evidence that immigrant workers - they're competing more with teenagers than they are actually with adults who were born in the U.S.
MCEVERS: What about teenagers who choose not to work? What do you know about that?
STEVERMAN: Well, I think that both teenagers and parents have changed their calculations a little bit about the job market. So if you go out and you get a $7.50-an-hour job, that's really not going to contribute that much to your college fund especially when college costs have risen way past the rate of inflation, and you have private schools that are costing more than $50,000 a year in tuition.
So for college-bound kids, sometimes it's more useful for them to get out there and beef up their resume for college, whether that's working for an academic scholarship or working toward an athletic scholarship. That might be a more useful use of their time than getting a job.
MCEVERS: You know, you said that that these jobs don't bounce back after a recession. And I'm curious about that. Like, what did people tell you the reason is for that?
STEVERMAN: Well, I think one theory that I have is that employers learn to go without teenage workers, so then they stop recruiting teenage workers. The other thing that's going on is that teenagers learn that they're not going to be able to get a job, and then they find other things to do.
We've reached sort of a critical point where less than half of teens are working in the prime months of the summer. That means that if you're a teenager, fewer of your friends are going out and getting jobs. So you might not have the networks to really be able to find something out there. I think for baby boomers and Generation X, summertime jobs were, like, a rite of passage. Everybody got a job, and you worked a lot of times next year friends. And that kind of thing isn't happening anymore. The culture's really changed.
MCEVERS: Bloomberg reporter Ben Steverman, thank you so much.
STEVERMAN: Thank you.
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