The death of the summer job

LONDON — Amid the many indicators that summer has finally arrived - barbecues…Fourth of July parades…flip-flops and sun block — here’s one signpost you won’t be seeing much of this year: the proverbial summer job. New figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that only one in three teenagers now holds a summer job.

The decline in teen employment has been precipitous. Whereas in 1978, nearly 60 percent of 16- to 19 year-olds were employed during the summer months, by 2001, that number dropped to slightly over 50 percent. It now hovers just below 30 percent.


Kain Cephas stirred chili cooking at DC Central Kitchen on June 27, 2011 in Washington, D.C. It was Cephas's first day on the job as part of the DC Department of Employment Services Summer Youth Employment Program. (Mark Gail/The Washington Post)

And yet, the death of the summer job is troubling all the same. For starters, when you disaggregate the numbers by race and income, you see that the groups least likely to be employed in summer jobs are blacks and Hispanics from lower-income families. These are precisely the individuals for whom early work experience is most closely tied to success in the labor market, largely because they are less likely to attend college. In a country with the highest level of inequality in the advanced, industrialized world, the last thing we need is to exacerbate the income gap between rich and poor.

But there’s also a sociological reason for alarm. It seems a day doesn’t go by that I don’t read yet another article documenting the plight of today’s 20-something generation. Over and over, we are bombarded with evidence that Gen Y is living at home longer, delaying marriage and failing to achieve economic independence and other milestones of adulthood.

Not everyone considers this “delayed adulthood” to be necessarily a bad thing. But one does wonder how — if young people are growing up later — they are supposed to go about learning this thing called adulthood?

I’m not suggesting that summer jobs are the answer. But they are a part of one. When I look back on the jobs I worked as a teenager, they taught me lots of skills that have served me well in later life. One summer, for example, I helped out in a swimming pool cover supply company. Not exactly scintillating stuff, but I learned how to take an inventory and mastered the basics of customer service.

Another summer, my sister and I worked together as waitresses in a garden café. There, the life lessons came more in the form of how to cope in a fast-paced environment with a persnickety boss, but they were no less valuable.

None of these jobs were exactly rocket science. But just internalizing the simple fact that you need to show up somewhere on time and do things that you might not find all that interesting or with people you don’t particularly like is — to my mind, anyway — at least half of what it means to be successful at “work.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to teach today’s youth 21st century skills that you don’t typically learn in a classroom, some of which have to do with career readiness.

I sure hope that whoever’s been tasked with figuring out how to impart such skills to the next generation has a sturdy lawnmower on hand. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

Delia Lloyd is an American journalist based in London. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia.

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