Are Summer Jobs a Thing of the Past?

summer jobs
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Fewer students are getting summer jobs than they did in the past. But why? The answer lies at the intersection of culture and technology.

The benefits of working at a summer job go beyond a little extra pocket money. Gaining work experience during the summer months also allows students to build confidence and develop time management skills. Working in the summer also helps to expand their professional network, which could come in handy further down the road.

One of the best things about summer jobs is that they can help people get to know themselves a little bit better. Workers learn more about their talents and skills, and about what they like and don’t like doing at work. This should help them make better and more informed professional decisions in the future.

Still, despite all of these benefits, the number of students who work at a summer job has declined significantly in recent decades compared with earlier years. Here’s what you need to know:

Fewer Teens Have Summer Jobs

summer jobs

For members of some older generations, a summer job was seen as almost a sacred rite of passage. Working at the local ice cream shop or the town pool was quite common. However, data from the Pew Research Center indicates that this has changed.

Historically, about 50 percent of teenagers aged 16 to 19 held summer jobs. This was true for the second half of the 20th century. But, since 2000, only about 35 percent of teens work in the summer.

From the late 1940s (when the data was first collected) through the 1980s, the summer employment picture was fairly consistent. When the economy was good, the rate rose. But, during challenging economic times, it fell slightly. The low came in 1963, with a teen summer employment rate of 46 percent. And, the peak was in 1978, when summer employment for teens rose to 58 percent.

Then, things changed. Per Pew:

That pattern began to change in the 1990s, when the teen summer employment rate didn’t experience its typical bounce back after the 1990-91 recession. Teen summer employment fell sharply starting during the 2001 recession, and even more sharply during and after the 2007-09 Great Recession. Only about 30% of teens had jobs in the summers of 2010 and 2011. Since then, the teen summer employment rate has edged higher, but remains well below pre-recession levels.

Why Are Fewer Teens Working Summer Jobs? 

A combination of factors may explain why young workers are less likely to work during the summer than in previous decades:

1. Automation

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A recent working paper from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) builds on the work of Oxford researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne and estimates the risk of automation for jobs in 32 countries.

The study’s findings show that 14 percent of jobs are “highly automatable.” (By comparison, Frey and Osborne predicted that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation.)

However, while the robots may not be coming for all of our jobs, they’re probably coming for the low-skill jobs. And that’s potentially bad news for would-be seasonal workers, who tend to do the kinds of repetitive work that automation is particularly likely to make obsolete. In fact, some of the jobs that teenagers used to hold no longer exist, or are more limited, thanks to advances in technology.

“A striking novel finding is that the risk of automation is the highest among teenage jobs,” writes blogger Brian Wang at “The relationship between automation and age is U-shaped, but the peak in automatability among youth jobs is far more pronounced than the peak among senior workers. In this sense, automation is much more likely to result in youth unemployment, than in early retirements.”

2. Volunteering and unpaid internships are more common

Volunteering and unpaid internships can help provide students work experience, networking opportunities and entry into their field. It might even lead them to their first job. In fact, research has fund that 63 percent of college graduates who had completed a paid internship received a job offer within six months of graduation.

However, this kind of work experience doesn’t show up in official measures of employment. Students who volunteer or work an unpaid internship are certainly busy, but their work isn’t counted as “employed” by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The rise of internship culture is likely a critical factor that contributes to the dwindling teen employment rate.

One significant challenge is that not all students can afford to have these kinds of experiences. Some young people need to earn money and can’t take on unpaid internships or volunteer work. These students shouldn’t be penalized for this by educational institutions or potential future employers. This could become an even bigger problem if the cultural norms continue to shift.

3. Students are staying in school

back to school
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Summer used to be a time when students took a break from hitting the books. But, increasingly, they’re taking summer courses to position themselves for college. These kinds of opportunities are most often something that students from more privileged backgrounds have access to. They might take courses at a local private school, for example. These courses can help improve their high school transcripts.

However, students from a lower-income background more often need to use their vacation time to earn money or to attend to other responsibilities.

“Lower-income students are much more likely to have to work in the summer, often full time, or take care of other family member,” says Kimberly Quick, a policy associate for the Century Foundation, speaking with The New York Times.

It’s unfair that not all students have access to the advantages gained by staying in school instead of working over the summer. Quick goes on to note that higher-income students are already advantaged. The students who don’t have access to these kinds of opportunities are often the ones who could benefit from them the most.

Using the summer months to take extra classes in an effort to get ahead is another reason why the teenage employment rate is lower in recent decades.

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4. A longer school year

A shorter summer is another factor that could be contributing to lower rates of teenage summer employment.

These days, a lot of schools get out in late June and resume well before Labor Day. The average length of the public school year has gone up over time. During the 1949-1950 school year, classes were in session for an average of 177.9 days. Now, the average is 179.6 days. In some states, the school year is longer than in others.

It’s not always easy to find temporary employment that works with this schedule. Popular student jobs like lifeguarding or working at golf courses may require workers to start while students are still in school. The challenge increases as school years get shorter and students’ schedules get tighter all year round.

5. The gig economy

The gig economy is another important factor to consider when looking at recent changes to the teenage employment rate. These kinds of jobs can be difficult for the Bureau of Labor Statistics to track. So, gig economy workers might show not up as employed when they are, in fact, working.

“For example, a teenager may be working building a website for her aunt’s small business and managing the Instagram account for 10 hours a week,” a report from the World Economic Forum states. “Yet, she will fly below the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ radar and is not likely to be counted as employed.”

In short, it would be a mistake to assume that students today are lazier than they were in the past. They aren’t simply sitting around the house on their phones playing games and checking social media all summer, as some might guess. A 2016 report found that just 7 percent of young people are engaged in neither education, employment or training.

Today’s young people are busy in the summer. They’re just doing things a little differently than teenagers did in the past.

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