Teen Unemployment

I came across an article about teens and unemployment, Jacob Passy’s Record low unemployment doesn’t mean teens will find summer jobs. There is nothing particularly insightful about the article, but it got me thinking. It occurred to me that those considered working age has changed immensely over time.

In the past, if you could walk and grasp objects with your hands, you were working age. But then child labor was made illegal. Small family farms also used to informally employ many young people and yet the once common practice of hiring out one’s children as farm labor has also become illegal. For a period of time, new areas of work emerged for youth workers: babysitting, paper routes, fast food restaurants, etc. Even those jobs are disappearing for youth as job scarcity is forcing older workers to take those positions, along with other shifts in laws and the economy.

“Overall, far fewer teens are looking for work these days. The labor-force participation rate, a measure of the share of people with jobs or looking for employment, was 35% for teens last July. Comparatively in 2000, when the U.S. economy last came close to achieving full employment, the labor-force participation rate for this group was nearly 53%. […]

“Fewer teens are able to find the types of jobs that were once popular with teen workers. In the late 1990s, one in four food service workers during the summer was a teenager, now that figure is just one in six. Similarly, in 2000 a fifth of retail workers handling sales and customer service in the summer months were teens. These days, that share has dropped to one-seventh of all retail workers.

“Many of the lower-paying jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors that used to be filled by teenagers are now held by foreign-born adults and older workers, including those past retirement age, according to the report from Drexel.”

This has broader implications. As they are not making money, teens aren’t contributing to family income and so are increasingly dependent on parental income. For some families, this would be a decrease in family income. For others, parents would make up the difference by working longer hours. But the latter couldn’t be possible for most, since about half of the working age population is either unemployed or underemployed.

Competition for work is going to get worse over time. Older workers will increasingly dominate employment. This is a trend that has been developing for more than a century. Universal public education intentionally pulled children out of the job market. Increase of school homework and extracurriculars needed to get into college have eliminated much of the free time that teenagers used to work jobs. And increasing college participation is further delaying entry into the workforce.

All of this is putting ever greater pressure on parents as providers. The age of perceived adulthood is being raised. This artificially lowers unemployment. For those who haven’t yet joined the workforce, they aren’t labeled and counted as unemployed. It’s similar to eliminating from unemployment rates people who have given up on looking for a job. It is deceiving to speak of unemployment among job seekers when ever larger numbers for one reason or another are being excluded from the category of job seekers.

Unemployment rates seems like an endless game of number manipulation.

* * *

I showed the article to my father. Here is his response:

“Yep. And in Iowa, kids cannot work until 14, and for the next two years, they cannot work past 7 pm on week days nor over 4 hours, if I recall correctly. So given the need for shift flexibility as people are sick or unexpectedly quit, employers don’t hire them as readily as older employees. Or so the family owner of a drive in place told me. Maybe 16 is the magic age.

“So I guess we don’t encourage them. And there is always a “good” reason for laws that discourage them while the real reasons remain unstated. My brother and I started regular part time work at age 15, and daily paper routes at age 11.”

Like my father, I also started working young. I had a paper route in elementary school that I did before school each morning. I did yard work for neighbors in middle school and high school. It was in 11th grade that I got a job at McDonald’s. It was common for kids and teens to work in the past. I never thought anything about it, as many of my friends had been working since they were kids.

So, if discouraging the young from working is intentional, what is the real reason? Some argue that it’s because education has become treated as work, in being ever more prioritized. And it’s a fact that kids do more homework now and are more likely to get more education. A few generations back, most people didn’t even graduate from high school and so beginning work young was a necessity. But how long can adulthood be delayed and for what purpose.

Maybe we are slowly transitioning toward something like a basic income. It is true that basic income experiments show that, when given a basic income, students are less likely to work while in school and that probably would be a good thing. I wonder, though. Americans are obsessed with the moral value of work as a way of proving your social worth. Plus, work has become a form of social control to keep the masses preoccupied. Older people are working longer and retiring later. And with the phenomenon of increasing bullshit jobs, the disappearance of jobs through automation is far from inevitability.

This past century’s shift has to end at some point. It can’t keep going like this while maintaining the kind of economy we’ve had.