Are teen summer jobs back for good?

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One subplot of the labour shortage story in the US this summer has been the employment boom for American teenagers. Some headlines have even declared it adolescents’ “best summer since 1953”. With fewer adults willing or able to take low-paid jobs in sectors such as hospitality and leisure, there are plenty of anecdotes about companies staffing their restaurants and smoothie bars with teens instead.

Curious about those headlines, I downloaded the data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds is indeed the lowest since the 1950s. But that only tells you the proportion of teens who are looking for a job and haven’t found one. It’s not an irrelevant statistic, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how many teens are actually working. For that, you need the employment rate:

Line chart of US employment rate for 16-19 year olds showing That 'teen jobs boom' in context...

As you can see, the story is real but rather less dramatic than the headlines suggest. The teen employment rate this summer is the highest since 2008, but it’s still well below pre-financial crisis levels. The picture in the UK is similar, but without the recent bounceback. (It’s worth noting we don’t have data on the summer months yet in the UK, and this chart is just for 16- to 17-year-olds.)

Line chart of UK employment rate for 16-17 year olds showing Teen jobs are out of fashion in the UK

There are a number of reasons for the long-term decline in teenage employment. The first is that teenagers are prioritising education over paid work. In the US, the proportion of teens enrolled in summer school has more than tripled in the past 20 years. In the UK, where year-round “Saturday jobs” used to be common for teens, surveys and focus groups suggest young people now worry about jeopardising their studies. As one UK study reported:

“A number of young people believed that they had their entire life to devote to work, so that engaging in relatively poorly paid employment, and diluting their focus on studying would be pointless, both in the short term (because of the nature of the work available) and also in the longer term (in terms of getting to university and getting a ‘graduate’ job).”

That seems like a rational decision, given the widening wage gap between those who go to university and those who don’t. On the other hand, studies from Australia, the UK and the US show that teenagers who combine part-time jobs with full-time education are less likely to become unemployed when they’re older.

There are also a number of reasons why teenagers have become less attractive to employers. Regulation of working hours for teens has become stricter, and in the UK the minimum wage has risen fairly quickly since 2016, which might have priced some teens out of the labour market. It’s also possible that teenage workers have faced more competition for low-paid jobs from migrants, who can be more flexible and often have more experience.

The pandemic knocked out some of the competition, at least temporarily, which is why we’ve seen teen employment rates rise a bit. But given the continued importance of education, I would be surprised if we ever see them return to the levels that were typical a few decades ago.

What do you think, Ed, is the comeback in teenage jobs going to persist, and would that be a good thing? And what was your own favourite summer job? I worked in an ice-cream booth in my local park. It wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped, but I did develop a talent for predicting what people would order. Young-ish woman? Strawberry. Teenage boy? Mint choc-chip. And every old man ordered rum and raisin.

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Edward Luce responds

Sarah, my teenage employment years were so traumatic they are almost a repressed memory. You’ve pushed me to unlock them. One Christmas I plucked turkeys at the local farm. This involved putting the live turkey upside down on a hook and strangling it then plucking it clean. I think I caught an early version of Covid because the masks were feeble. I quit. I don’t like eating turkey. I was fired from a waitering job at the local Happy Eater — a British roadside chain of breakfast cafés — after I spilled a large milkshake on a mother with two kids. She was very nice about it and said she only lived a few minutes away and left her kids at the booth while she went home to change. On her return, I was told by the manager to bring her a milkshake and two free ones for the kids. I slipped on the old unmopped milkshake and covered the whole family with the new batch. The mother wasn’t as generous in her reaction this time. I fared somewhat better doing temp clerical work in London. 

Please, therefore, take my teenage jobs comments with a pinch of salt — or a free milkshake, if you prefer. Summer jobs are good for teenagers. I know this as my 14-year-old daughter has just finished her first few weeks of paid employment looking after infants in a DC summer camp. She suddenly understands the value of money. I don’t have any clever labour market policies to recommend. But I am increasingly persuaded that the US, and other advanced countries, should reinstate some form of national service. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s environmental, or social work, or even military training. The most important thing is that nobody should be exempt, even the offspring of billionaires. Our countries are so culturally divided, and cross-class and cross-racial empathy are in such a poor shape, that I think this would be one answer to the problem. Work is character building for teenagers and students. It is also character building for nations and societies. 

We’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on swampnotes@ft.com, contact Ed on edward.luce@ft.com and Sarah on sarah.oconnor@ft.com, and follow them on Twitter at @EdwardGLuce and @sarahoconnor_. We may feature an excerpt of your response in the next newsletter

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