What has happened to the Great American Summer Job?

July 3, 2018

As recently as the turn of the 21st century, roughly half of U.S. teens could expect to spend at least part of their summer vacation lifeguarding, dishing up soft-serve ice cream, selling tee-shirts or otherwise working. But the share of teens working summer jobs has tumbled since 2000: Despite some recovery since the end of the Great Recession, about one-third of teens (35%) had a job last summer, based on findings of a poll conducted by Pew Research Center and released on July 2.

What’s happened to the Great American Summer Job? From the late 1940s, which is as far back as the data go, 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 after the 1990-1991 recession, when the teen summer employment rate hovered around 50% for the entire decade before 2000.

Teen summer employment fell sharply after the 2001 recession, and even more sharply during and after the 2007-09 Great Recession. Only about 30% of teens had jobs during the summers of 2010 and 2011. Since then, the teen summer employment rate has edged slightly higher, but is still below pre-recession levels.

Younger teens—16- and 17-year-olds—always have been less likely to work in the summer than their older peers. In percentage terms, however, employment for younger teens has increased more than for their elders. Last year’s summer employment rate for 16- and 17-year-olds was 25%—up from 18.5% in 2010. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the summer employment rate last year was 46.4%, compared with 41.6% in 2010.

White teens are more likely to work over the summer than teens of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Last year, for example, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old whites was 37.3%, versus 29.7% for Hispanics, 26.1% for blacks, and 23.3% for Asians. About 1.3 million more teens were employed in July 2017 than in April, a rough gauge of summer job-holding; 954,000 of those additional teen workers, or 74.1%, were white.

Researchers have suggested multiple reasons why fewer young people are working-among them:

  • Fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs (such as sales clerks or office assistants) available than in decades past;
  • More schools ending in late June and restarting before Labor Day;
  • A greater number of students enrolled in high school or college over the summer;
  • More teens doing unpaid community service work as part of their graduation requirements or to burnish their college applications; and
  • A higher number of students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count as being employed.

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. Nearly 2.1 million of the estimated 6.2 million teens who were employed last July (33.8%) worked in “accommodation and food services”—in  restaurants, hotels, and the like–-compared with 1.9 million (22.6%) in July 2000, according to BLS data. In fact, accommodation and food services was the only major industry that had more teen workers last July than in July 2000—a span during which the total number of employed 16- to 19-year-olds fell by 2.3 million, or 27.4%. Overall, accommodation and food services added more than 2.3 million workers between July 2000 and July 2017, for a 19.6% growth rate.

Up modestly, at least in percentage terms, was the “arts, entertainment and recreation” sector, which includes such employers as sports teams, museums and other tourist sites, county fairs and performing arts groups. Last July, 8.7% of employed teens worked in that sector, versus 7.5% in July 2000 (though the actual number of teens working in this sector fell by 95,000 over that period). To some extent that reflects broader growth in the sector, which grew by 432,200 workers (19%) over that same period.

The construction and manufacturing shares of teen summer employment both have fallen since 2000, to 4.3% and 3.8% respectively. A combined 498,000 teens worked in manufacturing or construction last July, less than half as many as in July 2000 (1.07 million). By comparison, while overall construction employment last July was about where it was in July 2000, total manufacturing payrolls were down about 28%.

Research contact: info@pewresearch.org

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