Get a job, kid! Oops, … no jobs?
For teenagers, getting a job was once a rite of passage.
I got a job at a convenience store my senior year of high school. But I’d done odd jobs long before that — babysitting gigs, yard work for a neighbor, helping out with my friend Jon’s paper route. During college, I worked in the dining hall. I spent my summers as a camp counselor. Nothing about my experience was particularly unusual. Almost all of my friends worked.
But times have changed.
According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., youth employment has plummeted throughout the country to the lowest rate since post-World War II. In the Capital Region, 42.9 percent of teens between the ages of 16 and 19 were employed in 2000, while just 28.7 percent were employed in 2012, which mirrors the drop nationally.
At a time when unemployment among adults remains high, some might wonder whether youth unemployment is really a big deal.
But the research suggests that teen unemployment has serious long-term impacts.
Teenagers who can’t or won’t get jobs are at greater risk of being unemployed in adulthood. Which means they’re also more likely to experience poverty, engage in criminal behavior and substance abuse and wind up in jail. And that they’ll probably pay less in taxes and depend more on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Another benefit of youth employment is that it keeps teens busy and out of trouble.
Teenagers who work can still get into trouble, of course — my friend Ben used to pilfer beer from the convenience store where he worked. But his crimes, on the whole, were minor. And it’s probably worth considering the kind of trouble he might have gotten into had he not been working between 20 and 30 hours a week.
I think we can all agree that a large population of unemployed teenagers is not exactly desirable, especially during the summer months.
It’s easy to deride teenagers as lazy and lacking in initiative. But today’s adolescents are coming of age at a time when it’s difficult for young workers to find work.
The entry-level jobs that kept my friends and me occupied are increasingly filled by older workers. Job growth has been slow, which means that competition for work is fierce. The sad fact is that the economy isn’t producing enough jobs for all of the people who need them, and teens and young adults are struggling to enter the workforce. And employers generally prefer to hire adults with experience over teens who require more training and supervision.
Not too long ago, I saw my old friend Jon, and we reminisced about our high school jobs. Jon is gifted with computers, and worked at a local computer store. But he also toiled at a take-out seafood restaurant during the summer.
“I think everyone should have a job like that,” he said. “Not necessarily a restaurant job — but a job where you work hard and deal with people and learn about responsibility.”
I agree with Jon.
I think entry-level work is a valuable experience for teens, for all kinds of reasons. It teaches the importance of being on time and the value of a paycheck. It teaches simple skills, such as how to operate a cash register, and respect for workers. Perhaps most importantly, it might instill the desire to someday find a better job.
But the days when teens could readily find entry-level work appear to be over. More than 70 percent of Capital Region 16-19 year-olds are unemployed, and there’s little reason to believe that figure is going to improve anytime soon.
An entire generation of young people is losing out, and all of us will suffer the consequences.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.