Most Americans love to reminisce about their first paying job, whether it was scooping ice cream, babysitting, or working behind a retail counter. It was rarely glamorous, but earning that first paycheck was a point of pride and marked a milestone in a teenager’s life.
By the time Andrew Sum entered his teenage years, he’d already held a job delivering newspapers. Now as an economist, one of his chief concerns is the state of the labor market for today’s teenagers. The employment rates for teenagers, ages 16 to 19, plummeted from 45 percent in 2000 to just 26 percent in 2011, according to Sum’s recent research for the Brookings Institution. That’s the lowest rate of teen employment in the post-World War II era.
The teens hardest hit by the tough labor market also happen to be the least fortunate ones: those with less education, from poorer households, or from minority backgrounds. Teens whose parents earned more than $40,000 a year boasted employment rates of 26 to 28 percent, while teens whose parents made less than that threshold, were employed at rates of less than 20 percent.
These signs foreshadow potentially another summer in which too many teenagers are unable to find work, years after the recession officially ended. “Kids are less likely to work now, and the range of industries they work in is smaller–like retail, trade, or fast food. That massively reduces the number of kids on the payrolls,” says Sum, who also directs the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. It does not help that teenagers now increasingly compete against adults for minimum-wage positions.