In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Dave Shiflett explores the implications of this development, recalling the “grit and glory of traditional summer work, which taught generations of teenagers important lessons about life, labor and even their place in the universe.”
Whether it was newspaper delivery, construction, factory work, fast food, or manual labor on the farm or the railroad, such jobs have introduced countless kids to responsibility, creativity, and service, helping connect the dots between God-given gifts and the broader social order.
Shiflett summarizes the situation as follows:
One of the biggest challenges facing today’s teenage worker is finding a job at all. A recent report by J.P. Morgan Chase says that only 46% of young people who applied for summer-employment programs were enrolled in 2014. “In the 14 major U.S. cities surveyed,” a release about the report added, “local officials also project that tens of thousands of economically disadvantaged youths looking for jobs will not be able to find them during the upcoming summer months.”
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the labor-force participation rate—that is, the proportion of a given population that is working or looking for work—for all youth last July was “17.0 percentage points below the peak rate for that month in 1989.” And the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis says that young workers “between 16 and 24 years of age constitute the demographic group that has experienced one of the most substantial declines in labor force participation”—though part of that change, this study noted, could be due to more youths spending summers on educational pursuits.
As to the “why,” we can observe a host of cultural, legal, and political drivers. Parents increasingly assign their teens to schedules filled with “formative” diversions and accommodate or enable lifestyles of leisure. We express outrage if a “young teen” is spotted doing construction work, and make it illegal for 15-year-olds to waive advertising signs or work past 9 p.m. on summer nights. We call the current minimum wage “oppressive” for how low it is, even though it’s high enough to price plenty of young folks out of the market.
Surely there are constraints to consider and dangers to avoid when it comes to expanding and increasing work for young people, and as Shiflett duly notes, we ought to be grateful that today’s teens can easily avoid the long hours, harsh working conditions, and dirty air of opportunities past. But those same tough situations were endured by our ancestors precisely so that our economic future might continue to expand and improve, not so that their descendants might take shortcuts to virtue and prosperity or opt out altogether.
Striving for “balance” in all that is important, but it needn’t mean prohibiting or discouraging the range of opportunities and wages we’ve come to forget. Many of today’s young, able, and eager are longing to learn, contribute, and be formed by the work of their hands in service to neighbor and God. By promoting a society that makes room for that across all spheres of life — from the family to the workplace to the schools to the government — our children will reap the benefits and share them in turn.