June 23, 2015

The fading of the teen summer job

With Each Decade, Teen Employment Has FallenIn the 1970s and ’80s, most teens could expect to be working at least part of their summer vacation. But the share of teens working summer jobs has dwindled since the early 1990s; last summer, fewer than a third of teens had a job.

To understand what’s happened to the Great American Summer Job, we looked at the average employment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds for June, July and August (teen employment typically peaks in July of each year). Since 1948, which is as far back as the data go, through subsequent decades, 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 1990-91 recession, when the teen summer employment rate barely rebounded. Teen summer employment again fell sharply after the 2001 recession and again failed to rebound, and fell even more sharply during and after the Great Recession of 2007-09. After bottoming out in 2010 and 2011 at 29.6%, the teen summer employment rate has barely budged – it was 31.3% last summer.

For younger teens, the summer-jobs picture is especially bleak. Last year’s summer employment rate for 16- to 17-year-olds was 20%, less than half its level as recently as 2000. For 18- and 19-year-olds, the summer employment rate last year was 43.6%, still well below the 62.6% average rate in the summer of 2000.

White Teens Most Likely to be Employed, Especially During the SummerThe decline of summer jobs is, in fact, a specific instance of the decline in overall youth employment, a trend that’s also been observed in other advanced economies. Researchers have advanced multiple explanations for why fewer young people are finding jobs: fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs than in decades past; more schools restarting before Labor Day; more 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 more students taking unpaid internships, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not consider being employed.

Where Teens Worked Last SummerWhite teens are much more likely to work over the summer than teens of other races and ethnicities. Last year, for example, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old whites was 34.0%, versus 19.3% for blacks, 23.0% for Asians and 25.0% for Hispanics (who can be of any race). About 1.3 million more teens were employed in July 2014 than in April, a rough gauge of summer jobholding; 1.1 million, or 84.2%, were white.

When teens do get summer jobs, where are they working? Nearly a third (32.2%) of the 5.6 million teens who were employed last July worked in “accommodation and food services” – restaurants, hotels and the like, according to the BLS. About 22.5% worked in wholesale or retail trade; 8.8% worked in the arts/recreation/entertainment industry.

Topics: Work and Employment, National Economy, Teens and Youth

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Christine Reardon1 year ago

    Not only are standard summer jobs for teens less available, but so are casual jobs like mowing lawns, shoveling snow, paper routes, and babysitting. Everyone wants to hire an adult with a car for positions that used to be filled by a teen with a bike. On the plus side, I see many more entrepreneurial teens who are creating their own opportunities than I ever knew in my own youth.

  2. Benjamin Studebaker1 year ago

    Wonderful, let’s let teens have fun summers full of adventure. Let’s let them develop their creativity and individuality. No need to keep them in heavily regimented, structured activities all the time. This is why in the Politics Aristotle says “leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and for the performance of political duties”.

  3. Tom Ingle1 year ago

    After each economic set back, recovered jobs are always lower paying. Hence, I believe many of the “entry level” jobs once held by teens, are now sought and held by family bread winners. This is one reason the $15.00 minimum wage is gaining traction.

  4. Drew2 years ago

    Teen jobs have been declining I have noticed especially in my area of Miami

  5. Verity Ingram2 years ago

    Ms. Lawson is absolutely correct. When my son tried to find his first job in 2009, all of the entry level positions at restaurants and in construction were taken by immigrant labor.

    1. Andrew2 years ago

      Exactly, all the Illegal Immigrants USA allows to stay (sanctuary cities..etc.) not only take the Jobs younger Americans used to get, but also knock down the real (inflation adjusted) value of the wages of starting-level-jobs for Americans.

  6. Lola Lawson2 years ago

    This is a direct correlation to influx of low skilled labor. I graduated High School in 1984 and have noticed that all the jobs that used to be taken by teens are now taken by people from other countries. it started really happening in the mid 90’s. I thought it was cute at 1st so many non english speaking people.

  7. Christine Schiller Grable2 years ago

    Such a shame. My high school summer jobs were possibly as, or more, instructive and valuable than my school work.

    1. Mindscope Recruiting and Staffing Software2 years ago

      This is so true! A summer job can prepare people for the real world more than any schooling.

  8. Steve2 years ago

    In a Liberal state like California Teens can’t work. It is not legal. Liberals like to control and tell everyone what is best for them. So keep voting for the party that is destroying this country. When I was 12 I washed thick green algae off boats with muriatic acid. you would go to jail these days for that.

    1. Becky2 years ago

      This is simply not true. Minors require a work permit, something that I believe all states require.

    2. Steve W2 years ago

      Your comment is misinformed and completely not true. Typical of people who stand on empty political soap boxes. Federal and state labor laws are consistent across the country and have been for decades. Maybe you should read? dir.ca.gov/dlse/childlaborlawpam…