Part of the July Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
In June, because of Covid-19, Amelia Loeffler, 18, was laid off from a Kentucky Panera Bread where she’d worked part-time for the past two years. Hoping to save for living expenses and a chunk of her upcoming college tuition, she estimates that she has applied for almost 20 other summer jobs, including multiple restaurants and a Dunkin’ Donuts. At least two, she says, told her that they couldn’t afford to invest money in training an employee who wouldn’t be around for more than two months or beyond the fall, when a lot of young people head back to school.
Amelia usually works two or three days a week and weekends year-round. “Most of my friends have part-time or full-time jobs year-round rather than just in the summer,” she says. While she says “it would be sweet to work at a cute local ice cream shop, or lifeguard at a pool, or do something fun and summer-y like you see teenagers doing in movies,” the “traditional ‘summer job’ is becoming more rare.”
She’s not wrong: The summer job as a rite of passage for teens and young adults has all but dissolved in recent years. About two decades ago, half of teens in the United States spent their summers working, Pew data showed; in 2018, less than a third of teenagers held a job.
Much of the drop traces back to the Great Recession, which led to a dramatic decrease in the number of teens who work during summers, according to research from the Urban Institute. A June 2020 report on the summer job outlook for teens in light of Covid-19 from Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy suggests the pandemic has set back any gains since: Had the pandemic not happened, the report explains, seasonally adjusted teen employment rate was expected to be about 31 percent, the highest level since before the Great Recession. Now, the teen summer employment rate is expected to be at a historic low: 23 percent.
Yet the summer job remains so embedded in American consciousness that it is treated with a kind of nostalgia. Jobs working in restaurants or behind cash registers, mowing lawns, or washing cars may not have been the stuff of dream-job glamour, but they represented a significant turning point for young people: Real life, and a sense of real responsibility.
It’s even nestled in our cultural lore: Ronald Reagan’s infamy as a lifeguard, Stranger Things’ mall ice-cream scoopers, The Baby-Sitters Club’s enduring popularity. Summer work has long been held up as a way to discover a sense of accomplishment beyond grades and a sense of identity as independent young people maturing past childhood.
But today’s young people are more likely to be primary caretakers or breadwinners in their families, and for others, it’s a lack of jobs, not an inability to pull themselves off TikTok, that has contributed to the summer youth job decline. Meanwhile, many of those jobs associated with teens on summer break have been filled by a different demographic: When Thomas C. Showalter, executive director of National Youth Employment Coalition, visits the fast food restaurant in his Oklahoma hometown where he worked as a teenager, he says, it’s more likely he’ll see older workers. Many of them can’t afford to retire, creating an environment in which older, more experienced workers are competing with young people who need work experience, and in a lot of cases, income to support themselves and their families.
There are other factors at play. A 2017 article in the Atlantic cited the rise of “low-skill immigration” in the last few decades as a key factor in the decline of youthful summer jobs. There’s also the State Department’s Summer Work Travel Program, created in 1961, which places young people from around the world in jobs across the nation taking tickets at amusement parks, scooping ice cream, and lifeguarding as a means to experience the ideals associated with American youth (though the program has been criticized for alleged exploitation, abuse, and discrimination).
But summer jobs were never easily accessible to all young people, anyway; now, they’re even less so, and with it comes a loss at not only economic opportunity, but a chance to develop a sense of independence and identity outside of school. The uncertainty of the summer job as we know it is yet another example of the continual shift toward economic precarity, and social upheaval, that’s become so familiar to today’s teens.
Young people, Showalter says, “don’t know a time before 9/11 and a time of war. [They know] a time of school shootings, a time of slowly declining economic fortune. And so the world seems much more precarious. And it seems much less like there’s any kind of social contract there for you.”
Beyond the idea of a social contract, what we as a culture expect from teens has shifted, too. Steven Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas Austin, explains that the rise of the summer job was the result of an extension of both compulsory schooling and the strengthening and eventual abolishment of child labor laws in the 1920s and ’30s, which came with increased high school enrollment and graduation rates. As high school expanded during this period, Mintz says, teens worked in their spare time. During summers, they served as substitutes for vacationing adults, working in factories, gas stations, doing sales and secretarial work, as well as working the seasonal, temporary jobs that we associate with young people, like being soda jerks or lifeguarding.
These days, jobs like this drip with nostalgia and feel like they are from a bygone era. Meredith Kyser, 18, of Virginia, had hoped for a similar experience by signing up to work as a camp counselor this summer in New York, but it fell through as a result of Covid-19 restrictions on sleep-away camps. “I was heartbroken because I thought my summer would be like all of the classic summer camp movies, Wet Hot American Summer, Parent Trap, etc.,” she says.
She thinks many in her generation work during summers purely to make money, and maybe save up for college, rather than to have fun with their friends. She eventually found a job at Wendy’s after applying to at least 20 different jobs and receiving barely any replies. She works nearly 35 hours a week, and plans to come back to this job on breaks from school, including a long winter break.
For more privileged young people, what was once a rite of passage is now considered lesser compared to flashy-but-often-unpaid internships tailored to the field you ultimately want to end up in; volunteering you can discuss in college interviews; or time spent studying to lock down grades that offer another way up the social capital ladder. Culturally, prioritization has shifted from gaining work experience to gaining the right kind of work experience for young people, and many are swift to weigh what’s a “worthy” job.
Allison Rapp, 21, has held internships since starting college, and before that, took an accelerated program her last two years of high school to earn college credits while working part-time. The summer after her first year of college, she took a two-day-a-week, unpaid internship with a magazine in her hometown, and toggled between a variety of summer jobs — waiting tables, babysitting gigs, yard work — at night and on her off-days.
While she loved her internships and had a good experience, she’s vocal that unpaid internships are a “pretty slimy way” for places to get free labor. “It’s such a hard bargain,” she adds. “We want to break into our fields of choice, but the bottom line is that bills need to be paid first.” Meanwhile, she feels she’s gained relevant experience working customer service. “It makes you better equipped to deal with people and the world around you than anything I can think of, and provides you with inexplicably valuable skills that employers love to see,” she says. “And yet, those summer jobs are still looked down on.”
Natalie Spievack, research assistant in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, pointed to competitive college admissions and increase in summer classes as part of the shift around summer jobs. “Working a summer job as a teenager used to be a hallmark of the American lifestyle, but this phenomenon is fading into the past,” Spievack said.
Of course, in some ways, the nostalgic vision of the summer job has never really existed, and to the extent that it did, it was a white, middle-class American myth of possibility. The idyllic image of young people holding jobs — think Paul Ryan using his summer job flipping burgers at McDonald’s as a talking point — is spun as part of the march toward the American dream.
But for many young people living in poverty, or teens in rural areas, the summer job might be as big a fantasy as a dream job. For them, working is “not necessarily a choice; it’s not just a fun thing to do,” says Kisha Bird, director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
This bears out in the numbers. Teens of color, especially those in low-income households, are less likely to hold a summer job than their white peers, and there are even further disparities, with female young adults earning less than their male peers, and Black and Latinx youth earning less than their white and Asian counterparts.
For young Black people, Bird notes, the unemployment rate was already persistently high before Covid-19. “So it didn’t jump as much because they were already out of the labor force,” she adds. For low-income young people living in high-poverty communities, first jobs — summer jobs — “have not necessarily been in their communities for decades,” Bird says.
“The Covid crisis has revealed — not to young people because they know it in their communities — but to lots of people that many, many folks weren’t doing well and young people, young workers were a big part of that,” Bird says.
Even outside the economic and cultural shifts, there’s a personal side to the youth job crisis, too: The first job is a marker of adolescence and maturation, Showalter says — a means of finding identity. These jobs created opportunities for another hallmark of young adulthood: exploration, or experiencing a variety of different work situations and environments before deciding on a career path. “We’re not providing those opportunities to young people in the way that we once did,” he says. Then, young people get dinged for being behind.
It’s easy to play the “when I was your age” card on summer jobs without acknowledging that the level of encouragement and investment in the summer youth workforce has fundamentally shifted, to the detriment of young people. If the foundation of that work is changing, then it only makes sense that how young people work would change with it.
Rainesford Stauffer is a writer, Kentuckian, and author of the forthcoming book An Ordinary Age, about the challenges of emerging adulthood in contemporary America. She’s written for the New York Times Style and Opinion sections, WSJ. Magazine, Teen Vogue, and the Atlantic, among others.