I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe. Goldie is away, so in this issue you’ll see what I’ve been thinking about this week.

A Rite of Passage Becomes Another Example of the Growing Divide

The Upper Midwest makes up for its brutal winters with hot continental summers, when families flock to the local waterpark, the lake, or the ice-cream shop. Businesses are hoping that the vaccine summer of 2021 will produce a boom in customers, and they’re ramping up their hiring after widespread layoffs last year.

“Almost everybody I talk to in every conversation and at every business level is looking for people,” says Benny Anderson, executive director of the Visit Eau Claire tourism bureau and a consultant to the hospitality industry around Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But one sector of the work force has proved elusive: teenagers. In those seasonal and hospitality jobs in years past, you often saw a teenager punching ride cards or passing out a dripping soft-serve cone, earning money for college between years in high school. But the share of teenagers who work summer jobs (and jobs during high school) has been falling for decades, from nearly 60 percent in the late 1970s to around 35 percent before the pandemic. Over those years, the percentages of workers of other ages in the labor market grew.

Economists note that this is probably happening for a number of reasons: Some positions that teens once held now go to older, immigrant, or foreign-born workers; there’s less demand for low-wage jobs; school often starts before Labor Day, cutting into summer employment; and so on.

But one of the main reasons economists believe that teenagers aren’t working is that they are spending more time on summer school, schoolwork, and activities that will help them get into college. The demands of high school have risen over the decades as well, with students taking more Advanced Placement courses and other college-prep curricula. In 1982, less than 10 percent of high-school students completed a slate of courses recommended by the National Commission on Excellence in Education for college-bound students; by 2009, 62 percent of students completed those courses. And the competition for a spot at a top-name college has only intensified over the years.

That all adds up to a strange contradiction: Parents and students frequently say that they want college to lead to a career — or at least a strong start in the job market. But some portion of parents and students are cutting back on the formative experiences of a teenage job, placing their bets on the launching power of a college education.

Elizabeth Heaton, vice president at Bright Horizons College Coach, an admissions-consulting company, says that she sometimes urges her clients to get a job as an element that might help a résumé stand out.

“Having a job has become a little bit more unique among students applying to the very selective schools,” she says. “In this age, where parents are doing so much for their students, I think it can show a real nice ability to be more independent.”

Patterns in teens’ work life might also represent a growing divide in higher ed: A college degree has become an essential requirement for many of the better-paying jobs out there, while positions that require only a high-school diploma have been vulnerable to cutbacks and slower growth, particularly since the Great Recession. Wealthy students can pass up jobs to concentrate on school and activities that round out an application to a prestigious institution, which will offer lifelong dividends in the job market. Meanwhile, many other students work a job (or two) to help cover the bills at home, while striving for college.

Holding a job while in high school, parents and students have seemed to reason, can cut into studying and sleep, and it has the potential to knock students off the path to a choice college and to harm their long-term job potential and financial prospects.

In a 2014 study, Charles L. Baum, a professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University, and Christopher J. Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that the benefits of high-school work had declined over time. Work experience during high school still led to benefits in the labor market years later, Baum and Ruhm pointed out. But the hourly wage premium for a cohort of high-school students from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth from 1979, when teen labor was at a peak, was about twice as high a decade later as was the wage premium a decade out for high-school students from 1997.

What’s more, the researchers found that senior-year employment reduced the likelihood that a student in 1979 would end up in a low-paying service job, while it increased the probability for students in the 1997 cohort. (A study of about 250,000 Canadian youths came to a more positive conclusion: Kids who worked year-round at age 15 had higher incomes and better job matches later in life.)

Many of us hold dear the notion that early work shapes lifelong attitudes about duty and ambition. In my Midwest upbringing, performing honest but crappy work with dignity was considered a foundational rite of passage. After years of babysitting and mowing lawns, I joined the documented work world at 15 — a summer job at a Minnesota amusement park, serving greasy food to demanding kids and their weary parents. I often stood sweating out in the hot sun, selling lemonade in plastic pink bears with straws poking out of their heads, dressed in candy-cane-colored polyester pants, shirt, and suspenders (lent to me by the park). As if simply being a teenager wasn’t enough misery.

However, I also added up orders and made change in my head, guarded a bag of full of money from pilfering teen customers/tormentors, and maintained a ledger noting my sales, which I had to present to the business office at the end of the day. I saw supervisors spying on me from behind park buildings, an early introduction to the Orwellian aspects of the work world. But I also gained a sense of independence and accomplishment, ending the summer with a full bank account, money that carried me through my first year of college. And I can trace how it led to other crappy jobs and, eventually, better ones.

But are we just nostalgic about those crappy jobs, or do they have long-term benefits beyond merely income, even to a person’s character? The Canadian study also tracked data from 500,000 youths in a longitudinal survey who worked for family businesses. It found that those teens had developed better relationships with their parents and had experiences with failure that built resilience.

Damon Yarnell, associate provost and executive director of the Center for Advising, Internships, and Lifelong Career Development at Dickinson College, estimates that perhaps one in five students at the Pennsylvania college never worked at a paid job, although those students may have performed community service, or a special research project, or some other “manicured” opportunity. But that can leave a hole in a young adult’s skill set. Employers hire for practical skills, “meaning that you have to learn them by doing them,” Yarnell says, and jobs expose people to the unpredictable — something that some liberal-arts programs try to contrive in curricula.

“If your service job was anything like my service jobs, some of those people were good to you, and a small minority, but memorable ones, were assholes,” says Yarnell. “That might show up in your community-service opportunity, but maybe not.”

We have all seen, says Yarnell, that high-achieving student who aims for a prominent position or career in life — and anything else is failure. More often than not, “that mentality is related to only having played on manicured fields,” Yarnell says. But the students who have worked real jobs gain a subtle confidence. “You came out of your crappy job, you survived, you’re ready to do what’s next, and your whole identity wasn’t necessarily at risk. That is invaluable.”

Last summer the pandemic decimated jobs in hospitality, recreation, food service, and some retail — all areas where teenagers typically work. A big question now is, What will happen this summer — and in years to come? Will financial stresses from the pandemic force more young people into the labor market, or will they still turn more toward college, with more adults picking up the jobs that teens once held? Work and school are both better outcomes than “disengagement” — that is, doing neither. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found rising disengagement among teens, probably because the pandemic had shut down both school and work options. In the study, teens in the Midwest were most likely to be engaged in work.

“I’ve definitely heard individuals tell their kids, Hey, just don’t work this summer,” says Anderson, from the tourism bureau, but that’s unusual around Eau Claire, what he calls “the biggest small town in America.” More often, he hears parents telling kids that they must get a job, and balance that with school, and activities, and social life.

“You know,” he says, “it’s that traditional Midwest nose-to-the-grindstone kind of environment.”

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