I toiled at numerous summer jobs as a teenager, from testing power cord plugs at a factory to prepping food and washing dishes in a kitchen at a camp. Yet I only know a few youths who have secured employment for the upcoming school break. This mimics trends: The teen summer job employment rate has hovered around 30 percent in recent years. Between the 1940s and '80s, this rate fluctuated between 46 and 58 percent.
So many factors fold into this downward trend, says Ron Lieber, the author of “The Opposite of Spoiled,” a guide to teaching kids about money. For starters, summer vacations aren’t as long as they used to be.
“If you’re in a divorced family, you may want to vacation (if your family can afford it) with both parents, which means two weeks cut from a 10-week break. Fall sports practice start a few weeks before school starts, too. That’s six to eight weeks to work, and not many places will want to hire you save for summer camps. That’s a good job, but many people perceive it to be non-resume-enhancing,” says Lieber.
People who work in [the college admissions] salt mines are sick to death of your over-programmed children.
Even more restrictive teen driving laws impact how many teens take summer jobs. These laws began to change in the mid-'90s, and curtailed night driving. This means “some kids might not think it’s worth it if some of their earnings go towards ride-hailing apps [or public transportation],” says Lieber.
Of course, the push towards summer enrichment plays a role, with parents and kids worrying they’ll fall behind their competitors for college admission if you’re not taking quasi-academic classes or doing community service or involved in some fake internship that a friend of a friend has created for you, adds Lieber.
Still, Lieber cautions against giving college admissions industrial complex too much power. Years of interviewing college admissions officers has taught him that they love to see great application essays from people who worked, no matter where.
“People who work in [the college admissions] salt mines are sick to death of your over-programmed children. They’d love to hear from more applicants who devoted themselves to substantive summer work, where over a few seasons you show progress and increased responsibility or ingenuity in whatever job you invented for yourself as an entrepreneur. If you want to stand out, work,” says Lieber.
The benefits gained from summer employment go beyond adding fodder for college admission essays. “At their best, summer jobs force you to answer to someone other than a teacher, coach or parent in a way that’s different from fulfilling academic, athletic or household responsibilities,” says Lieber.
The hardest moments of my own summer jobs mimic what Lieber wishes for teenagers engaged in seasonal employment.
“Hopefully, there are difficult customers involved and new tasks that you have to sort out for yourself, without the help of tutors or Google,” says Lieber.
With the hindsight of more than 30 years, I can say that I learned how to get along with people who were outside of my normal social sphere, alongside the importance of a working alarm clock and knowing where to look for your uniform work pants.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2018, and updated in June 2019.