Is the Teenage Summer Job a Thing of the Past?

Fewer and fewer teens are slogging away at summer jobs these days, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. That means fewer teens smoking covert cigarettes on loading docks; fewer teens losing their virginities behind terrestrial neon pirate ships; fewer teens weeping over McFlurries in their Honda Civics, to which they retreat every lunch break for 20 precious minutes of privacy, dignity, and the fleeting sense that they might be human after all, that they might matter, that they might have dominion over their own bodies.

And is an America without those things REALLY AN AMERICA AT ALL? Well, we might find out.

Teenage participation in the job market is slowly but steadily dropping, according to NerdWallet:

Today the employment participation rate of 16-to-19 year-olds working during the summer is down around 40%—part of a decades-long downward trend, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Measured by employment-population ratio, the drop is equally pronounced: in 1989 the majority of teenagers were working in the summer, but by 2010 less than a third did.

Teenagers get more than just perspective and sandwich money from summer jobs—early work experience also leads to higher employability and higher earnings later on in life. So what's to blame for the drop in teen workers? Vox looked into it.

"The job market is very, very weak for teens," [Ishwar Khatiwada, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University] says. And given the choice, he adds, "[Employers] will not pick teens. They will pick some older adults — 20, 24 years old." And he points out that that unemployment rate may not capture discouraged workers. Poorer teen workers are also employed in smaller shares than ones from richer families.

...For example, teens have been crowded out of fast food work. Today, teens make up only 16 percent of fast food workers, compared to 25 percent 10 years ago, as NerdWallet has reported — which may suggest that older workers are taking jobs teens formerly snapped up.

All of this means it may take a massive improvement in the labor market for that teen unemployment rate to go down.

Also:

The BLS writes that the share of students enrolled in summer school has been steadily on the rise. That in part is due to higher and higher high school graduation requirements, the report notes, not to mention students doing activities like summer "pre-college" programs to boost their chances of getting accepted.

In other words, there are a bunch of teens out there who would like to work but have prioritized other things over working.

Cool system, system.

Thinking back, I had some shitty summer employment experiences, but I definitely wouldn't trade them.

If I learned one thing from my first summer job, it's that I'd never really understood what the word "boredom" really meant. To paraphrase MTV's Cribs, I thought I knew, but—much like my preconceived notions about whether or not Redman's house would have a functioning doorbell*—I had no idea. When you're a kid, "boredom" means that you've already seen this episode of David the Gnome, so you might as well go see if you can learn how to roller-skate over speed bumps. When you're a working teenager, "boredom" means, "Here is a stack of invoices as thick as the OED. Alphabetize them."

For my second summer job, I worked at the grand opening of the Experience Music Project, Paul Allen's billion-dollar cathedral to Jimi Hendrix's farts. My task was to stand in the lobby and strap these 40-pound computers on to the torsos of angry tourists. Then, while touring the museum, the angry tourists could point a remote control at Janis Joplin's pants and Janis Joplin's pants would tell them a story about what it's like to be pants. When the museum was slow, the staff would take turns sneaking on to the EMP's crown jewel, "Funk Blast"—a motion platform ride (like "Star Tours") where Rufio from Hook, George Clinton, and the Archangel of Funk take you on a journey to Funkytown (the Fruitopia commercial where all music comes from), while spraying you in the face with horrible funky smells. Then "James Brown" falls from the sky, only it's actually a young person's body with old James Brown's face stuck on it using a computer. (This was before computers were good at stuff.)

"Remember!" young-James-Brown-body-old-James-Brown-face would yell. "Stay on the one! And always MAKE IT FUNKAY!"

These are important lessons to learn—sometimes (i.e. for the rest of your life, forever) you just have to DO SHIT. Even if it sucks. Alphabetize the invoices. Key in the credit card numbers. Look up the SKU. Be nice to the tourists. Never see the sky. Stay on the one. And always make it funkay.

Would I always be making it funkay today if it weren't for my summer work experience? I don't know. And I don't want to know.

* "IF YOU NEED ME, JUST RUB THESE TWO WIRES TOGETHER." - REDMAN

Illustration by Tara Jacoby.