What Has Become of Summer Jobs for Teens?

A summer job is still valuable — for the cash and the college admissions process — but the rate of teen employment has fallen dramatically. Here’s why.

Fewer teens are spending their summer earning a paycheck. Once a rite of passage, teenage summer jobs seem to be going by the wayside.

According to a new report from Pew Research Center, teen summer employment has plummeted in the past 25 years. While the majority of teens in the 1970s and ’80s worked at least part of their summer vacation, less than a third of today’s teens find summer work.

The data on teen jobs, which goes back to 1948, shows that their rate of summer employment typically would rise and fall alongside the economy — fluctuating between a peak of 58 percent in 1978 and a low of 46 percent in 1963. But the number started to decline in the early 1990s.

Teen summer employment fell sharply after the 2001 recession and the Great Recession, bottoming out at 29.6 percent in 2010 and 2011, Pew said. Since then, it’s barely recovered. Last summer’s teen employment rate was just 31.6 percent.

So, why aren’t the majority of teens working?

“Researchers have advanced multiple explanations for why fewer young people are finding jobs: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships,” Pew explained.

But the traditional summer job still has plenty of merits of its own.

“Gaining work experience is meaningful,” Bob Patterson, former Stanford University admissions director and vice president of the online college advising service Chegg, told Fortune. “Admission offices want to see commitment, leadership and initiative, and all three can be demonstrated in a low-skill job. You can show initiative by getting the job, commitment by sticking to it, and leadership by showing up early and staying late.”

Here are some highlights from Pew’s report:

  • White teens are the most likely group to be employed, especially during the summer. In 2014, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old whites was 34 percent, compared to 19.3 percent for black teens, 23 percent for Asians, and 25 percent for Hispanic teens.
  • Of the teens that worked last summer, about a third were employed in “accommodation and food services,” 22.5 percent worked in retail or wholesale trade, and 8.8 percent received employment in the arts/recreation/entertainment industry.
  • It’s more difficult for young teens to find jobs. Last summer, 20 percent of 16- to 17-year-olds secured summer jobs, compared to 43.6 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds.

I also wonder if some teens simply don’t want to work, so they don’t.

When I was 14, I was shipped off to my aunt’s home in Washington for the summer to work as a nanny for my baby cousin. When I was 16, I began working at a local movie theater, a job I kept throughout high school.

My parents didn’t give me spending money, so if I wanted gas money for my car or cash to do things with my friends, I had to earn it. I will always be thankful for the work ethic my parents instilled in me.

Did you spend your teenage summers working? Share your experience in comments below or share this article on your Facebook page, and start a conversation!

Stacy Johnson

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