As summer quickly fades into the rearview mirror, one ritual of the season didn’t get nearly enough public attention: summer jobs for teenagers, and how few of them there were. The jobless rate among teenagers is at its highest levels since the government began tracking the numbers in 1948. More than a quarter of 16- to 19-year-olds (26.1 percent) are officially unemployed, meaning they are job-hunting but unable to find work.
So, what does this mean beyond a bunch of teenagers without gas money, a few new video games or an outfit their parents won’t finance? Plenty.
A May report in the National Journal described the job plight of today’s young workers as a broken escalator. Instead of young people getting on at the bottom and smoothly traveling to the top throughout their careers, workers already near the top are losing jobs and going backwards, nudging out young people trying to climb on. Older workers who can’t afford to retire aren’t stepping off the escalator to make room for a new generation. And with jobs still disappearing, the escalator has all but stalled.
That’s what we see in the teen jobless rate. Teenagers are competing with jobless adults for low-end, entry-level positions. This is especially true where state and local budget crises have destroyed summer jobs programs for teens.
And it’s not just spending money they’re losing. Summer jobs are what enable many young people to afford soaring college tuition, books and life on campus. These jobs are also resume-builders that demonstrate skills and reliability to future employers—and they’re the testing labs where teenagers learn those skills and work habits.
Teens heading to college may graduate facing mountains of debt and little chance of finding good jobs—jobs in the fields they prepare for, jobs that will enable them to earn enough to start their adult lives, jobs that provide benefits and some hope that college debt will one day prove a good investment. And young people who don’t attend college face an even tougher time getting on, and staying on, the escalator.
A year ago, the AFL-CIO surveyed young workers and found more than a third worry about finding a full-time job with benefits. Young workers are far less likely than older workers to have health care coverage or a retirement plan. And more than a third still live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to make it on their own.
We found conditions sadly similar when we surveyed young people again last month. Only a third said they make enough money to pay their bills and put some away.
The teenagers who can’t find jobs this summer are in jeopardy of permanent economic “scarring”—a lifetime of reduced earnings and opportunities because they couldn’t push their way onto that escalator.
Every one of the 1.5 million officially unemployed teenagers from this summer is further evidence of the grave need for American investment in job creation. This Great Recession has cost us more than 10 million jobs, and the private sector is not replacing them. Companies are hoarding cash rather than hiring workers because they have no need to produce more when 26 million of us are either out of work or underemployed and can’t afford their goods and services.
How are we going to give today’s young people both the preparation they need and the optimism that will carry them through their lives? Are we raising a generation of kids who won’t be equipped to dream? How do we restore for them the promise of what America should and can be?
Here’s how: We make the public investments that will put America back to work—rebuilding our infrastructure, jump-starting green energy technology and tackling the extreme problems of distressed communities. Workers with good safe jobs won’t need to bump younger workers off the escalator and out of summer jobs. This is the best way to bring our economy back to life, restore consumer demand and fix that broken escalator for America’s working people of all ages.