Where Did America's Summer Jobs Go?

Where Did America's Summer Jobs Go?
From TIME - June 29, 2017

It's not like the jobs are not there. The ice cream still needs scooping. A Tilt-a-Whirl does not run itself. And that floppy, weirdly heavy rubber frog that somersaults toward the rotating lily pads? Hit or miss, someone's got to bring it back to the catapult for the next lucky player. The work of an American summer remains, sticky and sweet as cotton candy, which does not sell itself either.

But when Jenkinson's Boardwalk went looking for seasonal employees last year, the response was not at all what the company expected. To fill some 1,200 summer vacancies, an Easter-time job fair drew just 400 people. Applications did bounce up this year, but not nearly enough to reverse a grave trend that summer employers have noticed well beyond the Jersey Shore.

"It is getting harder to find students that will work," says Toby Wolf, director of marketing at the boardwalk. "Each year it's getting harder and harder. None of us has been able to pinpoint why. Is it a change in society as a whole?"

This is a question to chew over on the long road trip from Glacier National Park--where concessions could be staffed by Bulgarians on work-study visas--to Maine, which each summer struggles to fill the lifeguard chairs above its beaches. The same story holds at the water attractions at Wisconsin Dells and on Cedar Point's roller coasters in Sandusky, Ohio. As a nation, we have lately endured the demise of comity and the fracture of factual truth. Are we now witnessing the slow death of the summer job?

Read More: What These Celebrities and CEOs Learned From Their Summer Jobs

The numbers are not encouraging. Forty years ago, nearly 60% of U.S. teenagers were working or looking for work during the peak summer months. Last year, just 35% were. Note the element of declaration: what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tabulates are reports of actually desiring work during the months when most high schools and colleges are off. It is a statement of intent. Plotted on a chart, the decline is unmistakable and, since the turn of the new century, precipitous--plummeting 15 points in 15 years, to where we are now: only about every third youth working or looking for work this summer.

All this as the nation's job outlook is what economists describe as "full employment" and as employers display a hale appetite for summer help. In a national online survey for conducted in February and March, 41% of companies said they planned to hire seasonal workers--up sharply from 29% in 2016. The annual survey captures more than numerical truth. Asked who they planned to bring on for the summer, the responses revealed an intimacy not usually captured in top-line statistics: 34% said they planned to hire a friend, 30% a family member and 19% said they were putting their kid on the payroll.

It's a measurable economic activity that may not even be that much about money. On June 26, former Vice President Joe Biden climbed back into the lifeguard chair where he spent the summer of 1962, as a suburban kid watching over an inner-city pool in Wilmington, Del. "I learned so, so much," he said at the ceremony where the pool was renamed for him. Summer jobs are like that, a rite of passage looked back upon over the course of the life those eight or 12 weeks might frame--or stand memorably apart from.

"I worked in a movie theater when I was 16," says Judy Schram, now 64, as her 7-year-old grandson Max dangles a fishing pole with a magnet instead of a hook over a gurgling stream of plastic fish on the Point Pleasant boardwalk. "I sold Christmas cards door-to-door. Oh, and I had a paper route--took it over from my big brother when I was 10. My parents wanted us to work. And we had chores. Nowadays it's completely different. Kids do not work now."

The payroll offers at least partial confirmation: more and more, jobs historically done by vacationing students are being taken by older Americans forced to extend their working lives, or foreigners looking for their chance. At the same time, for many young Americans in the second decade of the 21st century, the choice is not between a summer job and a summer idyll. (Of course for many teenagers whose families need the money, not working during the summer is not an option.) The preoccupations of the heavily scheduled school year--college preparation, organized sports, volunteer work--are also determining what one does on summer vacation.

But not for all. It's 15-year-old Madison Andrews who lands the plastic fish for Max, flips it over and explains he can have two small prizes or one medium. On the cusp of her sophomore year in high school, she is delighted with her first job. As a minor she's paid only $6.50 an hour, but points out that she can go on the beach for free before her shift (in many parts of New Jersey, you have to pay).

"I love kids, and I also need money," Andrews says. "I want to save up for a car."

What's changing in America? Not observations on kids these days. Polls confirm what the heart already knows: every generation thinks the one coming up behind it is at least a little bit spoiled. The sentiment is expressed first as aspiration--the desire to see your kids live better than you were able to--and then, if prosperity indeed arrives, as complaint. "Kids do not work anymore," says the manager of a company that struggles to recruit teen counselors for sleepaway camps, speaking privately to vent. "Mine are 12 and 14, and they want everything to be done for them."

But what has most assuredly changed is how much more some of us are prospering compared with others. The rich are indeed getting richer--average income for the top 5% of households has reached $350,000 a year, with the upper middle class, defined as the top 20%, averaging $200,000. Everyone else in America more or less treads water.

On the Jersey Shore, the differences are visible not only at the boardwalks, but in the neighborhoods that butt up against them. The rows of one-story working-class rentals that novelist Richard Ford described as "little desperate houses" are being replaced, after the floods of Superstorm Sandy, by multistory palaces measuring 6,000 sq. ft. These lavish second homes are intended not just for changing clothes or naps between trips to the beach, but for an altogether more expansive vision of the good life, with floor-to-ceiling glass and Calphalon cookware hanging over the range.

This sorting of the U.S. population at least begins to account for the change in how teens are spending their summers. The BLS reports that, in a societal shift as slow (and as relentless) as the movement of tectonic plates, less affluent older workers are indeed delaying retirement and taking part-time jobs in fields, like food preparation, where teens are now working less. But the same market forces that require some to keep thinking about work later in life compels their grandchildren to begin thinking about it earlier and earlier.

The calculus begins with a question: What makes the biggest difference in a lifetime's income? The answer has been shown to be higher education. A bachelor's degree or higher pays a premium of more than 85%. Kids have been told this forever, and for the last couple of generations--the members of X and Y--preparation for success began in kindergarten. And those plans do not encourage passing July afternoons painting houses.

"It's too competitive. There's too much pressure," says Dan Schawbel, author of a book titled Promote Yourself. "Getting into college is much harder than it was for boomers. Getting a job is really hard. So you have got to get started as early as possible." Schawbel offers his own career track as an example. He got his own internship in high school (making cold calls), and followed that up the next summer with one designing brochures for a travel agency. Today he translates the workplace's generation gaps through a company called Millennial Branding, which produces surveys like the one showing 77% of high school students are interested in volunteering to gain work experience. That is, working to put a line on a rsum, or college application, but no actual pay.

At the Jersey Shore, Wolf has noticed the trend on the boardwalk, when she tells the unpaid interns--kids with an eye toward a career in marketing--that their schedule can be fit around their other obligations. "They say, 'No, I want to make these a priority,'" Wolf says.

The competitive college process, which has put a premium on students' extracurricular and volunteering work, incentivizes this behavior. The National Honor Society, for example, has quotas for volunteer work.


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