By Drew Desilver, Pew Research Center, June 27, 2019
School’s out for summer, and U.S. teens are headed for … where, exactly? Probably not to a paying job, according to Pew Research Center’s latest analysis of federal employment data.
As recently as two decades ago, roughly half of U.S. teens could expect to spend at least part of their summer vacation lifeguarding, selling T-shirts, dishing up soft-serve ice cream or otherwise working for pay. But the share of teens working during the summer has tumbled since 2000: Only about a third of teens (34.6%) had a job last summer, despite some recovery since the end of the Great Recession. And when teens do get summer jobs these days, they’re more likely to be busing tables or tending a grill than staffing a mall boutique or souvenir stand.
To understand what’s happened to the Great American Summer Job, the Center looked at the employment rate – or, more formally, the employment-population ratio – for 16- to 19-year-olds over the past seven decades. We took the average employment rate for June, July and August of each year as our measure of summer employment. (We used non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for this analysis, since teen employment rises sharply in the summer months and typically peaks in July.)
From the late 1940s, which is as far back as the data goes, through the 1980s, teen summer employment followed a fairly regular pattern: rising during economic good times and falling during and after recessions, but generally fluctuating between 46% (the low, in 1963) and 58% (the peak, in 1978).
That pattern began to change in the 1990s, when the teen summer employment rate didn’t experience its typical bounce back after the 1990-91 recession. Teen summer employment fell sharply starting during the 2001 recession, and even more sharply during and after the 2007-09 Great Recession. Only about 30% of teens had jobs in the summers of 2010 and 2011. Since then, the teen summer employment rate has edged higher, but remains well below pre-recession levels.
While younger teens – 16- and 17-year-olds – are still less likely to work in the summer than their older peers, their overall employment level has increased a bit faster in the post-recession period. Last year’s summer employment rate for 16- and 17-year-olds was 24.1%, up from 18.5% in 2010. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the summer employment rate last year was 46.2%, compared with 41.6% in 2010.
White teens are more likely to work in the summer, as well as during the rest of the year, than teens of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Last year, for example, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old whites was 37.5%, versus 28.9% for Hispanics, 25.8% for blacks and 20.1% for Asians. Almost 1.4 million more teens were employed in July 2018 than in April, a rough gauge of summer jobholding; nearly 1.1 million of those additional teen workers, or 78%, were white.
The decline of summer jobs is a specific instance of a broader long-term decline in overall youth employment, a trend that’s also been observed in other advanced economies.
Researchers have suggested multiple reasons why fewer young people are working: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs, such as sales clerks or office assistants, than in decades past; more schools ending in late June and/or restarting before Labor Day; more students enrolled in high school or college over the summer; more teens doing volunteer community service as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and more students taking unpaid internships, which the BLS doesn’t count as being employed.
The types of summer jobs that teenagers are holding has changed over time, too. More than 2.1 million of the estimated 6.2 million teens who were employed last July (34.2%) worked in the “accommodation and food services” industry – restaurants, hotels and the like – compared with 1.9 million (22.6%) in July 2000, according to BLS data. In fact, this industry was the only major employer of teens that had more teen workers last July than in July 2000 – a span in which the number of all employed 16- to 19-year-olds fell by more than 2.2 million, or 26.5%. (That partly reflects overall employment in the accommodation and food services industry, which rose 38% between July 2000 and July 2018.)
But retail, once the leading summer employer of teens, has seen a steep falloff. Last July, 1.2 million teens worked in the retail sector, compared with more than 2 million in July 2000 – a 41% drop. (Among all workers, by comparison, non-seasonally adjusted retail employment was about 4% higher last July than it was in July 2000.) Retail accounted for 19.3% of teen summer jobs in July 2018, down from 24% in July 2000.
The construction and manufacturing shares of teen summer employment both have fallen since 2000, to 3.8% and 4.4% respectively. A combined 509,000 teens worked in manufacturing or construction last July, fewer than half as many as in July 2000 (1.07 million). By comparison, while overall construction employment last July was 6.3% higher than it was in July 2000, total manufacturing payrolls were down about 26% (both figures are unadjusted for seasonal variations).
Occupational data shows that summer job patterns differ considerably by gender. Last July, nearly a third of working teen females (31.5%) had jobs involving preparing and/or serving food, compared with 20% of males. Female teens were twice as likely as males to work in sales jobs (25.7% vs. 12.5%), and almost twice as likely to have personal care and service jobs (10.8% vs. 5.8%). On the other hand, teen males were far more likely than females to have occupations in transportation and material moving (12.7% vs. 1.7%); construction and extraction (6.6% vs. 0.4%); and installation, maintenance and repair (3.6% vs. 0.1%).
How do things look for teen employment heading into this summer? In May, 29.3% of 16- to 19-year-olds, or 4.9 million, were employed (not adjusting for seasonal variations), down a bit from May 2018. An estimated 718,000 were unemployed, meaning they were available and actively searching for work but hadn’t yet found any. The unemployment rate among those 16 to 19 was 12.8%, not much different from the 12.6% rate recorded in May 2000.
But even though there are more working-age teens today than in 2000 (16.7 million vs. 15.9 million), far fewer of them are in the labor force: 5.6 million as of last month, down from 8.1 million in May 2000. Last month, around 11 million teens, or two-thirds of the total civilian non-institutional population ages 16 to 19, were outside the labor force entirely, compared with 7.8 million (49.1%) in May 2000.