Teenage (Employment) Wasteland : The Indicator from Planet Money The teen summer job is a vaunted tradition...one that is fading. Today's teenagers just aren't working as much as their forebears. And that could have serious implications for America's labor market.
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Teenage (Employment) Wasteland

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Teenage (Employment) Wasteland

Teenage (Employment) Wasteland

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Stacey, happy first day of summer.


Thank you, Danielle. Yes, it is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year today.

KURTZLEBEN: So let me ask you a question.


KURTZLEBEN: What was your first summer job?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that's easy - babysitting. I started babysitting when I was about 10 years old. I took it very seriously. I had, like, a whole network of people. I was like a little babysitting - I took it really seriously.

KURTZLEBEN: You were a one-woman Baby-Sitters' Club.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I was quite a mogul after a while because I was, like, this very overachieving babysitter.

KURTZLEBEN: You were known for being a babysitter.

VANEK SMITH: I was in high demand. What about you? What was your first summer job?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, I thought you'd never ask. My first real summer job with W-2s and all of that was bussing tables at a...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Restaurant and golf course. It was called The Barn. I was 14. The Barn is a refurbished barn, actually...

VANEK SMITH: Where is it?

KURTZLEBEN: ...So it's not just a clever name. It is in rural Iowa. But I knew I was going to be doing a story this week about teen summer jobs, so I had kind of a blast from the past. I called up The Barn because it's...


KURTZLEBEN: ...Still operating today to see if I could talk to one of the teenagers working there now. And they told me there aren't any.


KURTZLEBEN: There - yeah. I called up the current owner, a guy named Mark Krull, and I asked him what's changed.

You don't get a lot of applications from teenagers anymore?

MARK KRULL: Not really. I get some, but it seems like they're all so busy they can never work when we want them to work.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Like, there...

KRULL: They work certain days or during the day. They want their nights and weekends off, and that's when we need people.

KURTZLEBEN: Is it just less of a norm now for teenagers to work than it used to be, like, back when I was a teenager or you were a teenager?

KRULL: I think so, yeah. Of course there's a big difference between my time and your time, too.



VANEK SMITH: I like Mark Krull.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, he's great. I mean, fair enough, Mark. He is a little older than me. But, I mean - but this bummed me out. Like I was saying, everyone worked there. That said, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised because what's happening at The Barn, as it turns out, is emblematic of a bigger shift in the labor market. There's just been this shift over the last few decades away from the summer job.

VANEK SMITH: That's right. The number of teens who go out and get summer jobs has plummeted in the last few decades. On top of all that, though, it hasn't really picked up all that much since the Great Recession even though as we've reported here unemployment on the whole is as low as it's been since 2000. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

KURTZLEBEN: And I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. Today on the indicator, we try our hardest not to be crotchety old people.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: But we try to answer the question, why aren't the teenagers working?

VANEK SMITH: Kids these days.


VANEK SMITH: They're so lazy.


VANEK SMITH: And their music - just noise.



KURTZLEBEN: Let's start off today with a quick chart on the radio.

VANEK SMITH: Chart on the radio.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. If you were to look at a chart of the employment rate for teenagers - now, this is 16- to 19-year-olds - there are these regular sharp spikes upward. Now, that spike is July. That's the month when teen employment peaks every year. And last July, nearly 37 percent of teenagers were working. That's today's indicator - 37 percent. That's not much, at least not if you compare it to past decades. Back in the 1980s and 1970s, there were a few summers where that teen employment rate was near 60 percent.

VANEK SMITH: So it's approaching half of what it used to be. And even the size of those July spikes has gotten smaller. The summer employment bump has shrunk considerably over the last couple of decades. That is a big change since Paul Harrington had his first job.

KURTZLEBEN: So quick question - what was your first - what did you do as a teen?

PAUL HARRINGTON: Well, I was a gas station attendant. I think I was about 14 then.

VANEK SMITH: And today Paul is a labor economist at Drexel University. And he has done a lot of research into youth unemployment.

HARRINGTON: So labor market is really quite good for college grads, for pretty much everyone. I mean, this is a - these are really good times. You know, the big exception to that is teenagers. Teens are, you know, not doing very well. Their summer job outlook is not very good.

KURTZLEBEN: And there are a lot of reasons for this. And Paul walked me through some of them. The first big reason young Americans aren't working is older Americans.

HARRINGTON: Probably the most important thing is the change of behavior and the size and behavior of the older worker population. Lots and lots of older workers now are working in teen labor markets.

VANEK SMITH: Americans are staying in the labor force longer and longer these days for a bunch of reasons. They're living longer. Some people need more money to retire. Others just want to work longer.

KURTZLEBEN: And given the choice between a 16-year-old and a 66-year-old, Paul says most employers will pick the latter.

HARRINGTON: You know, when you look at the demand side of things, it's very clear as that supply of older workers becomes available, employers clearly prefer them because employers really see all the workers as having the basic kind of behavioral traits that they need. And they think that kids, you know, increasingly don't have those traits - you know, dependability, reliability, self-control.

VANEK SMITH: In fact, Paul says, teens just tend to be in the back of the job line. Right now the teen unemployment rate is 12.8 percent. That is way higher than the total unemployment rate of 3.8 percent.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. But it's not historically high, and that's an important point here. This isn't all about employers not wanting to employ teens. It's also about teens not wanting to be employed.

VANEK SMITH: I knew it was their fault...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Yep.

VANEK SMITH: ...In here somewhere. I'm just kidding.


KURTZLEBEN: You're going to get so many angry...

VANEK SMITH: So many angry emails.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Snapchats.

VANEK SMITH: I actually like - I like teenagers. It was just a - like, a painful, awkward time.

KURTZLEBEN: It was. We feel you. But...

VANEK SMITH: Oh, I just - I feel like it just takes me back to...

KURTZLEBEN: But - no, but speaking...

VANEK SMITH: ...The cafeteria - terrible.

KURTZLEBEN: But speaking of life being stressful for teenagers, like, many have an incentive not to work. There's a reason they're not working every summer.

HARRINGTON: The higher education system now I would argue punishes high school kids for working because the rewards in high school for college admission are not work-related. They're, you know, community service, that sort of thing and - you know, with respect to extracurricular activities.

VANEK SMITH: Short version - to a lot of teenagers, waiting tables just is not going to look as good on a college application as, say, tutoring kids or playing three sports or doing summer academic programs or learning Russian or something.

KURTZLEBEN: And there's sort of a broader cultural aspect of this because as it becomes less of a thing for teens to work, fewer teens even consider working. It's just not the norm, kind of like Mark and I were talking about.

VANEK SMITH: Also, we should just add this phenomenon doesn't affect all teenagers equally. In fact, the teen job market is yet another area in which life is a little bit easier if you have a little more money.

HARRINGTON: The lower the family income, the less likely the kid is to work. And as family income rises, you know, much higher probability for the child to work. And a lot of that's got to do with how the labor market works. You know, the way teens, young adults get jobs is through - labor market's a social network. It's a social system.

KURTZLEBEN: I can't believe you need contacts now for a summer job.

VANEK SMITH: It's all about who you know, kid.

KURTZLEBEN: You know, you got to learn that early. But one thing I should add here is that the cause and effect kind of go both ways here because aside from what Paul was saying, you know, rich kids might just be more likely to live in healthier economies where there are more jobs anyway. Likewise, lower-income kids might live in an area with fewer jobs, so that also makes sense. To Paul, the decline in teens working is really bad news because teen jobs are important in giving people basic foundational work skills.

HARRINGTON: It's a way to develop proficiency. How do you learn behavioral traits? One of the ways you do it is you go behave. This is the first time that you're asked to act - for almost everybody it's the first time you're asked to act as an adult in an adult setting where there are adult repercussions for your decisions, either positive or negative.

VANEK SMITH: And Paul says delaying that economy-wide, especially across millions of kids, is going to create workforce-wide productivity problems. That's what he worries about.

KURTZLEBEN: But for people like Paul who really worry about this, I am happy to report that all is not lost. I found a teen summer worker. Of course they still exist.

VANEK SMITH: Wonderful.

KURTZLEBEN: So I called up the swimming pool in Buffalo Center, Iowa.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: I figured if my old workplace didn't still have teens around, at least one of my friends' might. And I got to talk to Krista Schutter. She is 18 years old. She just graduated from North Iowa High School - go Bison. And this is her second summer lifeguarding at the Buffalo Center pool.

KRISTA SCHUTTER: It's much more fun than I originally anticipated. I mean, I work with great people, and I enjoy the kids and their goofy comments and all of that stuff.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, what do you - is that what you like most about it, is working with the kids?

SCHUTTER: Yeah. Truth be told, I did not like kids growing up. Like, they just kind of scared me (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Krista was great. I mean, she actually took her time out of her day of lifeguarding. She was talking to me from the Buffalo Center pool office there. And she got over her phobia of kids of course now that she's lifeguarding. But she doesn't plan on making a career of this of course. She's headed to college this fall.

SCHUTTER: Yeah, I'm going to go to Iowa State and major in animal science.

KURTZLEBEN: Cool. Are you going to be a veterinarian?

SCHUTTER: That's the goal (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Here's the thing. Working at the pool, Krista is not getting experience with dogs or horses or anything like that. But Paul says that actually doesn't matter.

HARRINGTON: Well, the first thing you see is that kids who work when they're in high school, they just are more likely to work as an adult, OK? They have higher employment rates as adults than kids who don't work while they're in high school. Second thing is that as adults 10 years later, they will make somewhere between 10 and 20 percent more, holding other factors constant, than kids who didn't work.

KURTZLEBEN: So Krista's job now will make her a higher-earning and just a better worker down the line, Paul says. And even at age 18, Krista says she can see this happening herself.

Do you feel like this is good job experience or prep for the real world?

SCHUTTER: Absolutely. I mean, I'm constantly interacting with parents and kids, and I think it's really helped my people skills.


KURTZLEBEN: There you go.

VANEK SMITH: Interacting.


VANEK SMITH: She's wonderful.

KURTZLEBEN: So, Stacey Vanek Smith...

VANEK SMITH: Yes (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: All of those skills you developed babysitting, they've made you the reporter that you are now.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, it is similar somehow.


KURTZLEBEN: Wait a minute.


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