You probably aren’t surprised to learn that the jobless rate for young people aged 16-24 years has fallen to the lowest rate recorded since 1969. Those “Hiring” signs you see in every storefront tell the story. Although the jobless rate for young people is still twice that for adults, clearly there are jobs out there.
However, it appears that there are fewer young people looking for those jobs. In fact, the decline in what is referred to as the “labor force participation rate” is down significantly to 60.6% from a high point of 77.5% in 1989 ( Summer Youth Unemployment Falls to Lowest Level Since 1969 , by Eric Morath. Wall Street Journal. 2017 Aug 17).
Although I haven’t found any statistics that might explain this lack of interest in joining, even temporarily, the job market, several things come to mind. It may be that the overall improvement in the job market means that families are more secure financially and children feel less pressure to contribute to family coffers. The author of the Wall Street Journal article suggests that some young people see going to school during the summer as a way to shorten their path to graduation, and a full-time job as a better investment than a low-paying summer job. The lure of adventure and the chance to sample other cultures may prompt those who can afford it to travel instead of work.
But it may be that the concept of having a job, particularly a first job, lacks the appeal it did for my generation. While I’m sure my parents would have appreciated any financial contribution I could provide, I felt no direct pressure from them to get a summer job. My mother’s only concern was that without something to do, I would be getting into trouble or hanging around the house and getting in her way. She could easily find me work to do around the house that wasn’t going to be fun or pay me anything.
It was peer pressure that nudged me into working. I had watched my friends and their older siblings reaping the benefits of a summer job – disposable income. Money could buy an old car, pay for insurance and gas, fund dates, and buy 45 rpm records. The money provided some independence. Even the most menial job could allow you to feel a bit more like a grown-up.
In retrospect, my summer job experiences gave me the opportunity to meet people who resided out of my socioeconomic and ethnic comfort zones. I learned the value of good customer service and some of the skills involved in providing it – skills that should be in the toolbox of every practicing physician.
While I don’t think it is our job as pediatricians to instill a work ethic in our patients, it doesn’t hurt to encourage those who seem to be at loose ends to consider getting a job. Unfortunately, many of the businesses hiring young people are offering hours that are certainly not schoolwork- and sleep-friendly. And we must caution our patients to avoid making bad compromises when facing the lure of a steady supply of spending money.
I would hate to see us return to the bad old days when children were enslaved in sweat shops, in dangerous and unhealthy working conditions. However, I fear that in some cases, in our zeal to protect young people from unsafe working conditions, we have made so many rules that we have seriously limited the opportunities for them to get a taste of the hands-on technical skills that our country desperately needs. Just try to get a plumber or electrician when you need one, and you will understand what I mean. A summer spent as an electrician’s gofer just might trigger a floundering 13-year-old to invest more energy in his studies when he sees them as a critical step to a well-paying job he would enjoy.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.”