WASHINGTON – Once a rite of passage to adulthood, summer jobs for teens are disappearing.
Fewer than three in 10 American teenagers hold jobs such as running cash registers, mowing lawns or busing restaurant tables from June to August. The decline has been particularly sharp since 2000, with employment for 16- to-19-year olds falling to the lowest level since World War II.
And teen employment might never return to pre-recession levels, suggests a projection by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The drop in teen employment, steeper than for other age groups, is partly a cultural shift. More youths are spending summer months in school, at music or learning camps or in other activities geared for college. But the decline is especially troubling for teens for whom college might be out of reach, leaving them increasingly idle and with few options to earn wages and job experience.
Older workers, immigrants and debt-laden college graduates are taking away lower-skill work as they struggle to find their own jobs in the weak economy. Upper-income white teens are three times as likely to have summer jobs as poor black teens, sometimes capitalizing on their parents’ social networks for help.
Overall, more than 44 percent of teens who want summer jobs don’t get them or work fewer hours than they prefer.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Colleen Knaggs, describing her fruitless efforts to find work for the past two years. The 18-year-old graduated from high school last week in Flagstaff, Ariz., the state that ranks highest in the share of U.S. teens who are unable to get the summer work they desire, at 58 percent.
Wanting to be better prepared to live on her own and to save for college, Knaggs said she submitted a dozen applications for summer cashier positions. She was turned down for what she believes was her lack of connections and work experience. Instead of working this summer, she will be baby-sitting her 10-year-old brother, which has been the extent of her work so far, aside from volunteering at concession stands.
Economists say teens who aren’t getting jobs often are those who could use them the most. Many are not moving on to more education.
“I have big concerns about this generation of young people,” said Harry Holzer, labor economist and public policy professor at Georgetown University. He said the income gap between rich and poor is exacerbated when lower-income youths who are less likely to enroll in college are unable to get skills and training.
“For young high school graduates or dropouts, their early work experience is more closely tied to their success in the labor market,” he said.