Is college killing the summer job?

Back in the 1970s, just about 60 percent of eligible teenagers (age 16 to 19) worked jobs during the summer. It was just what you did. When school was out you took the opportunity to make yourself some money. Maybe you were saving for college, maybe you were saving for your first car, or maybe you just wanted some walking around money. Whatever the motivation, the majority of teenagers forty years turned their free time into cash.

That’s not really the case anymore. According to a study recently published by the Pew Research Center, only 31.6 percent of eligible teenagers worked a paying job during the summer of 2014. Why the massive decline in teenagers working while school is out? And is the summer job now just a dying relic of a time gone by?

Blame the economy, not the kids

While it may be tempting to just blame “lazy millennials” for not wanting to work, the reality is that overall trends in summer employment almost always shift in step with the national unemployment rate. In 1974 the national unemployment rate was 5.6 percent. During the summer of 2010, when the summer employment rate for teenagers hit an all-time low of 29.6 percent, the national unemployment rate was 9.4 percent.

It isn’t simply a lack of jobs, though. It’s a lack of no-experience-needed entry level jobs. A lot of those starter jobs, when available, are going to adults with more experience, who represent a potentially more stable investment.

Career tracks don’t allow for detours

Another factor pulling teenagers away from paying jobs is college requirements. College-bound students are increasingly advised or outright required to commit their free time to charity work and unpaid internships.

As a college education becomes less optional and more mandatory, teenagers are forced to start working towards the admissions process from an earlier and earlier age. Simply taking a job for a paycheck and the experience of holding a job isn’t viewed as being as important as doing community service or unpaid work within your chosen industry.

The end of the summer job?

A stagnant job market is always bad for workers with less skills and experience. A 2013 article in The Economist noted that young people all across the world are struggling to find work at a historically high rate, meaning that this isn’t just a problem in the United States.

Assuming the global economy rebounds and new jobs are finally created, does that mean that summer jobs will rebound as well? That’s hard to say. It seems that going forward, teenagers will be tasked with deciding between earning money and practical experience, or preparing for a secondary education and the career track that lies beyond. It does seem a shame, however, that they should have to choose one or the other.

What do you think? Is it more important for teenagers to spend their summers preparing for school or making money and gaining work experience? Can they have both?

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, focused on creating and delivering valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

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