Laziness Not Reason for Teen Unemployment

Annette Ungermann, Opinion Editor

While Millenials have been blamed by their elders and the news media alike for killing off everything from the casual dining industry to the concept of home ownership, it is our Generation “Z” that carries the responsibility for the death of the classic teen summer job.

No longer the rite of passage that it once was, 2016 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows just 43 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds to either be working or seeking employment– a whole 10 points lower than just a decade prior. Teen employment shows an even wider generational gulf with job participation in the late ’80s hitting nearly 70 percent amongst teens.

This is partially the results of an economic pattern: over the course of the past 3 decades, according to data reported by Bloomberg, teen participation in the workforce plunges after major recessions. Though the economy eventually recovers, labor rates never return to their previous levels.

Theories as to why this is the case are abundant– could the dip in teen employment just be indicative of our generation’s (supposedly) inherent laziness? Or perhaps job competition with the very generation that so judges us– Americans now work past 65 at the highest rates in over 50 years. Less-educated seniors as well as immigrants often out-compete teens for work at lower wages.

The real culprit? Education. Or more accurately, the competition that comes with securing one’s desired education. Teenagers face more pressure than ever– especially in regions like Lamorinda –to be scholastically exceptional. Varied extracurricular activities are more strongly emphasized as résumé-boosters for college applications in comparison to part-time employment, which is often time-consuming for a busy student.

A BLS analysis supports this conclusion, citing that more teens than ever actually attend school during the summer. The number of teens enrolled in a summer course in July 2016 was more than quadruple the proportion recorded in July 1985 (42.1 percent as compared to 10.4 percent). Similarly, the report shows a pool of 16- to 19-year-olds citing “going to school” as the primary reason they weren’t employed.

The opposite of laziness, then, is to blame for the decline of teenage employment. Education has taken up more and more of teenagers’ time.  Many teens also enroll in summer courses simply to enrich their education or attain desired college credit– not just because they’ve failed a course in school that they need to make up.

Additionally, pocket cash earned from a part-time job simply doesn’t go as far as it used to. While many teenagers of generations past could justify an income earned from minimum wage employment as sufficient to help fund a college education, tuition inflation has made this a fantasy. With the current minimum wage at just $10.50 per hour and the average tuition at a private university often upwards of $40,000 annually, part-time teen earnings barely make a dent. With such a daunting price tag attached to a college education, perhaps many teens feel dissuaded from taking on extra responsibility that won’t necessarily propel them to the academic field of their choice.

Common (and perhaps more favorable) alternatives to minimum-wage employment? Year-round sports. Community service. Even unpaid internships, or travel programs. The only constant is that teenagers experience more varied possibilities of how to spend their summer than ever before. In fact, the number of American teenagers “Neither in Education, Employment, or Training” (NEETs) is just 7 percent– this is roughly the same as the mean of all other advanced economies in the world, according to the Atlantic. Additionally, this number has only shifted 0.1 percent in the past 30 years, even as the teen labor force has dropped steadily. Any supposed “laziness” is unproven.

If teenagers aren’t devolving to become lazier than generations prior, and are instead enriching their summers with a variety of activities that make them more well-rounded individuals– is their decline in the workforce really as unfortunate as older generations tend to suggest? There is undeniable benefit in familiarizing oneself with the job hunting process to prepare oneself for later life– skills in interviewing, communicating directly, and behaving professionally.

However, it is likely that the most pressure to join the summer workforce (or judgement of “laziness”) comes from those that feel nostalgic for their youth. Is this justified? The Atlantic reports the findings of several studies that suggest summer-employed teens enjoy higher earnings in later life and are less likely to turn to a life of crime than their unemployed peers, as a whole. Yet more studies show that completing high school and moving on to pursue higher education are more dependable paths to success.

In short, the decline of the summer job simply shows an adapting workforce that holds changing standards for success, with more teenagers choosing to invest in their academic future, pursuing varied interests. This is simply a generational shift.