Why Aren't More Teens Working in America?

Just a few weeks ago, a business reporter at regional TV station WFMZ asked that question during a segment on teens in the workforce. Quite a few people responded after he posted it on Facebook.

Without much surprise many left unflattering comments about this youngest workforce eligible cohort. One reader suggested “Playstation” and “cellphones” were the culprits. Others derided our youth as lazy, spoiled, immature, and self-centered kids who would rather play video games than earn a few bucks for spending money. (By the way, I’ve debunked that last theory several times since every older generation has said the same thing about teens since Hesiod proclaimed in the 8th century BC:

"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint".

Of course, no conversation about what’s wrong with kids today would be complete without mention of “helicopter parents,” hovering adults who protect their kids from getting their hands dirty, breaking a sweat, or even the horror of getting less than an “A” in every subject.

But the real reasons why fewer teens are working is because—to paraphrase our President—“[it’s] complicated.”

Let start with demographics. Baby boomers are increasingly ignoring the traditional retirement age of 65. Thirty-two percent of Americans 65 to 69 are still employed, the highest level in 55 years. Many older workers are holding the jobs formerly filled by teens, especially in retail and fast food. This number is only expected to rise in the next 5 years.

But Baby Boomers aren’t the only culprits. To make ends meet, 20-something Millennials are taking many of the jobs traditionally reserved for teens. Fifty-one percent of Millennials, a 10 percent increase since 2013, report being underemployed. Forty-four percent of Millennial college grads are stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs, typically a first job for teens. Here’s an example from personal experience: my teenage granddaughter is working this summer at a community center teaching art to disadvantaged kids. Her supervisor is a Millennial teacher. Twenty years ago this teacher’s summer job was filled by a 19-year old college student studying to be a teacher. The same goes for the crew who cleaned up our landscaping. In the 60s and 70s the crew was made of high school and college students. This year the crew was a team of local teachers looking for ways to supplement their income.

But it’s not just demographics and the economy. Education may be partially is to blame too, rather than indolence. Teenagers aren’t just spending more time on the couch exercising their thumbs and playing video games, but rather spending more time in the classroom. Teens are remaining in high school longer, going to college more often, and taking more summer classes. They are attending sport and/or band camps as well as band camps and family vacations. The percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in college—both two-year and four-year—has grown by 25 percentage points. That is almost exactly the decline in the teenage labor-force participation rate.

While all these conditions set up compelling if not provocative arguments, the clincher to why teens aren’t working may be simply that employers aren’t hiring them. Why employ an inexperienced teenager when you can hire a college grad desperate to pay off school debt? Why not hire senior citizens who are experienced, historically more dependable and strapped for cash or emotionally bored with retirement? The rise of low-skill immigration in the last few decades has also created more competition for exactly the sort of jobs that teenagers used to do, like lawn mowers and landscapers, grocery-store cashiers, restaurant servers, and retail salespeople. The number of federally funded summer jobs, where students work temporarily with their local government, has declined too. And while the jury is still out, minimum wage increases—both mandatory and competition-driven—may be pressuring companies to choose between a teen without a work history and a more experienced worker.

So why aren’t more teens working this summer? It’s too easy to point fingers and blame the kids. Truth be told, there are many reasons why teens aren’t working as much as they used to and bad or different attitudes play just a small part. Aside from the reasons lies a larger question: is the loss of summer jobs for teens a good thing or bad?

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.