The teenage unemployment crisis

The unemployment picture is especially grim for teenagers, leading McClatchy News to worry about a “lost generation:”

For the fourth consecutive summer, teen employment has stayed anchored around record lows, prompting experts to fear that a generation of youth is likely to be economically stunted with lower earnings and opportunities in years ahead.

The trend is all the more striking given that the overall unemployment rate has steadily dropped, to 7.4 percent in August. And employers in recent months have been collectively adding almost 200,000 new jobs a month. It led to hopes that this would be the summer when teen employment improved.

This was written before the appalling August jobs report and its stunning downward revisions to job creation for June and July.  “Almost 200,000 jobs a month?”  Only if you think an average of 148,000 jobs is “almost” 200,000.  And the trend is downward.  Job creation appears to be slowing down.  It’s nowhere near the level needed to keep pace with population growth, which is why the official U-3 unemployment rate “dropped” to 7.4 percent last month by booting 312,000 people out of the workforce entirely.

This is all very rough on young workers, who rely upon entry-level jobs and risk-taking entrepreneurs to land their first jobs.  An untested young person is always a roll of the dice.  The current situation is unprecedented:

In 1999, slightly more than 52 percent of teens 16 to 19 worked a summer job. By this year, that number had plunged to about 32.25 percent over June and July. It means that slightly more than three in 10 teens actually worked a summer job, out of a universe of roughly 16.8 million U.S. teens.

???We have never had anything this low in our lives. This is a Great Depression for teens, and no time in history have we encountered anything like that,??? said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. ???That???s why it???s such an important story.???

After reviewing the even higher unemployment rates for minority teenagers, the McClatchy report makes an intriguing observation: one particular subset of the teenage population is finding work at roughly 1999 levels.

One of the more surprising findings of Sum???s research is that teens whose parents were wealthy were more likely to have a job than those whose parents had less income. Some 46 percent of white male teens whose parents earned between $100,000 and $149,000 held a job this summer, compared with just 9.1 percent of black male teens whose family income was below $20,000 and 15.2 percent for Hispanic teen males with that same low family income.

That finding is important because a plethora of research shows that teens who work do better in a wide range of social and economic indicators. The plunging teen employment rate is likely to mean trouble for this generation of young workers of all races.

???Kids that get work experience when they are 17 or 18 end up graduating from college at a higher rate,??? said Michael Gritton, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, which promotes job creation and teen employment in Louisville, Ky., and six surrounding counties. ???There are economic returns to those young people because they get a chance to work. Almost every person you ask remembers their first job because they started to learn things from the world of work that they can???t learn in the classroom.???

These observations are contrary to the current ideal of parking kids in college until they’re in their mid-twenties, ready to emerge from their academic cocoons and stroll directly into “good jobs” with six-figure incomes.  It’s interesting that students who work have a higher graduation rate.  Is this an attitudinal advantage – a scholastic benefit conveyed by a solid work ethic?

We might speculate that if teens from wealthy families are more likely to work, and working students are more likely to graduate, then either wealthy parents confer attitudes and values upon their children that benefit them in numerous ways… or it’s just plain awesome to come from a rich family that has enough money to deal with the problems low-income kids cannot overcome.  It could be a combination of both, of course.  Perhaps further research could control for the benefits of wealth and determine how much of these higher employment and graduation rates is due to positive attitude.

The other correlation that would be interesting to explore is the higher rate of marriage among upper-income families.  They are more likely to get married before having children, and more likely to remain married throughout the high-school years of their children.  Marriage is invaluable for preventing child poverty.  Teens from families with six-figure incomes are more likely to come from intact families.  Is that a significant factor in the development of their work ethic, and their ability to find employment?

It’s not difficult to imagine many advantages for a young job-seeker whose parents are still together.  Two parents means two networks of adult connections to draw upon.  That first job might come from Mom or Dad’s firm, or from one of their friends, or from a company they do business with.  Both parents can help provide reliable transportation for kids who aren’t able to drive themselves to work yet.  They can both help to develop the attitudes and habits that attract employers.  And a stable, financially sound family life would naturally give the young job-seeker more latitude to accept jobs that initially offer limited or erratic hours.

Whatever the reason, it’s not good news to see that the pool of employable people is diminishing, at both adult and teenage levels.  The collapse of the workforce means a smaller pool of applicants is getting all the jobs, while a growing body of Americans orbit permanently beyond the employment system.  As the McClatchy article observers, a stalled career ladder for older workers means fewer opportunities for young people, particularly on the first crucial rungs above entry-level part-time and temporary employment.  The machinery that should be drawing in young people and producing experienced, reliable employees is broken.

It’s also unfortunate that we’ve placed such emphasis on an extended stay in college for virtually everyone, when there are good blue-collar “dirty jobs” in need of young apprentices.  Delaying entry into the workforce for years, while piling up a staggering amount of student-loan debt, just isn’t right for everyone.  It can be tough for someone in their twenties with minimal work experience to appeal to employers, particularly when labor is a buyer’s market, and a proven track record of reliability counts for so much against a sea of academic credentials.  There are jobs employers expect teenagers to apply for.  And they expect twenty-somethings applying for higher-level positions to have cut their teeth by working those jobs as teenagers.  It’s not easy to defy those expectations.