The decline of the classic American teen summer job

Due to budget shortfalls, the beach at Carey Lake in Hibbing, Minn. will not see lifeguards manning these chairs.
Due to budget shortfalls, the beach at Carey Lake in Hibbing, Minn. will not see lifeguards in these chairs.
Derek Montgomery | MPR 2011

The traditional summer job for teens has been on the decline since its late 1970s peak. In July 1978, the teen employment rate was at an all-time high with 72 percent of teens participating in the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 40 years later, that rate has dropped nearly 30 percentage points — to 43 percent — in 2016. 

In the years since, the employment rate among teens has maintained its downward trend. Aside from the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, what has accounted for the changes in teen employment? 

To start, a good education is valued more now than in the past. School enrollment among teens has increased every decade since the 1970s, leading more young people to take unpaid jobs or internships to better position themselves in the future.  

Jobs have also drastically changed over the decades. The gig economy has boomed over the last several years, making it easier for some to find flexible work through phone-based apps. 

In other cases, individual family dynamics may dictate different needs around work, depending on class, socioeconomic background or education. 

Host Kerri Miller talks to two experts about the post-pandemic recovery and the changing cultural landscape around teens and work.

Guests:

  • Alicia S. Modestino is an associate professor, labor economist and research director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University 

  • Melissa Milkie is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and president of the Work and Family Researchers Network

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Correction (June 11, 2021): Guest Alicia S. Modestino’s university was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The article has been updated.

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