WASHINGTON – For the fourth consecutive summer, teen employment has stayed anchored around record lows, prompting experts to fear that a generation of youth is likely to be economically stunted with lower earnings and opportunities in years ahead.
The trend is all the more striking given that the overall unemployment rate has dropped steadily, to 7.4 percent in August. And employers in recent months have been adding almost 200,000 new jobs a month. That led to hopes that this would be the summer when teen employment improved.
In 1999, slightly more than 52 percent of teens 16 to 19 worked a summer job. By this year, that number had plunged to about 32 percent.
"This is a Great Depression for teens, and no time in history have we encountered anything like that," said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. "That's why it's such an important story."
The picture provided by teen employment looks even worse when viewed through the complex prism of race. Sum and colleagues did just that, comparing June and July 2000 and the same two months of 2013.
In 2000, 61.28 percent of white teens 16 to 19 held a job, a number that fell to 39.25 percent this summer. For African-Americans, a number that was dismal in 2000, 33.91 percent, fell to a staggering low of 19.25 percent this year.
It wasn't terribly better for Hispanics, who saw the percentage of employed teens fall from 40.31 percent in 2000 to 26.7 percent this summer.
One of the more surprising findings of Sum's research is that teens whose parents were wealthy were more likely to have a job than those whose parents had less income. Some 46 percent of white male teens whose parents earned between $100,000 and $149,000 held a job this summer, compared with just 9.1 percent of black male teens and 15.2 percent of Hispanic teen males whose family income was below $20,000.
That finding is important because a plethora of research shows that teens who work do better in a wide range of social and economic indicators. The plunging teen employment rate is likely to mean trouble for this generation of young workers of all races.
"Kids that get work experience when they are 17 or 18 end up graduating from college at a higher rate," said Michael Gritton, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board, which promotes job creation and teen employment in Louisville, Ky. "There are economic returns to those young people because they get a chance to work.
"Almost every person you ask remembers their first job because they started to learn things from the world of work that they can't learn in the classroom."