Careers

Young people are less likely to hold summer jobs now—here's what they're doing instead

 Dan Callister | Getty Images 

When Warren Buffett was six years old, he spent his summer selling sticks of gum and bottles of Coca-Cola. When Bill Gates was 16, he spent the summer working as a Congressional page. When Jeff Bezos was 16, he spent the summer flipping burgers for McDonalds.

Summer jobs have been a part of the American success story for decades, but according to a recent report from Pew Research Center, the era of the summer job may be coming to an end. In 2016, 35 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds held a summer job, and the teen labor force participation rate in July was 43.2 percent.

Compare that to 1978, when 58 percent of this group held a summer job, and the teen labor force participation during the month of July was 71.8 percent. Wisconsin's state legislature recently passed a bill that lowered the minimum age for lifeguards to 15 so that the state's many indoor and outdoor waterparks could keep their doors open.

There are several reasons for the "death" of the summer job, among them, an overall decline in youth employment as a result of the Great Recession, and an overall decrease in the number of low-skill, entry-level jobs as a result of dramatic changes in the retail industry.

But beyond these economic realities, there are several other factors that are causing younger generations to buck the summer employment tradition.

Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

One cause is the highly-competitive educational landscape that students must navigate today. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the percentage of young people taking classes over the summer has more than quadrupled, from 10.4 percent in 1985 to 42.1 percent in 2016. Students today need to continue their educations after high school in order to compete in the workforce of tomorrow and for many, that means taking classes over the summer to either get ahead of or keep up with their peers.

Additionally, school years are longer than they were in the 1970s and 80s. "With a shorter summer off from school, students may be less inclined to get a summer job, and employers may be less inclined to hire them," states the BLS report.

Overall, "a focus on education is driving this decline in employment," Martha Ross, a fellow at Brookings, tells USA Today.

When they aren't in class, young people are still getting their hands dirty — even if it's not with a summer job. Teens are increasingly likely to hold unpaid internships (which the BLS does not consider employment) and to volunteer. BLS data shows that a quarter of American 16-to-19-year-olds volunteers regularly, and many high schools require students to volunteer in their local communities in order to graduate.

Like summer jobs, opportunities like these have the capacity to teach important lessons about hard work and responsibility. "You can learn responsibility in any job, if you take it seriously," Jeff Bezos is quoted saying in the book, "Golden Opportunity: Remarkable Careers That Began at McDonald's."

Of course, unpaid internships and volunteering don't put money in the bank. But in the 1970s, it was possible to work a low-paying summer job and earn enough to build meaningful savings for college. Today, the cost of college has risen dramatically, making it highly unlikely that a student would be able to make enough cash over the summer to offset the costs of their higher education.

Instead, many students focus on earning a generous scholarship and for many, that means summer classes, unpaid internships and volunteering.

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