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First Job

Think back for a moment to your first summer job.  You may have landed an unpaid internship, or if you were as lucky as I was a grunt job doing all the things no one else wanted to in a power plant.  It probably wasn’t glamorous or particularly exciting, but the odds are you learned a lot.  If you can remember your first summer job, I can peg you as probably being over 25 years old and getting on in your “real” career.  Summer jobs like you had don’t tend to happen anymore.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a government website with far too much data to comprehend, kids these days simply are not getting their first job over the summer that they used to.  This July, kids aged 16 to 24 had an employment rate of 51% in July, the lowest level since they started measuring this in 1948.  Among those who were actively looking for work, the net unemployment rate was over 18%, another record.

Many people were alarmed when the officially calculated unemployment rate of the BLS for the whole population hit the milestone 10%, a level not seen since 1983.  The broader U6 unemployment rate, which includes “discouraged” workers who may not be actively looking as well as the “underemployed” who want more hours, is around 18%.  The latter is a level consistent with the Depression of 1893, which this particular Depression is consistently looking an awful lot like.  What these numbers miss is the relative youth of our labor force and how much of the burden of unemployment is falling on people who are looking for their first job, their first break in life.

For the record, when I was 16-24 I was employed consistently in the summer, never missing a chance to raise a little bit of money.  By the age of 21 I even had a full time job as an engineer.  I think it is reasonable to say that the generation entering the world of adulthood right now is certain to have a very different outlook on life and labor because their experience has not been anywhere near as good mine.

The implications of this are probably quite vast, and if they become an attitude could be present in our culture for the rest of my life.  If nothing else, it probably explains the enormous amount of time that young people seem to have to create internet applications without any kind of business model that suggests they might be filling a need in the world – is this a new spirit of innovation or a colossal waste of time?  This also explains the increase in social “conferences”, breakfasts, and other kinds of gatherings which seem to be a staple of many people’s networked professional life.

There is little doubt that the regime we see right now will be with us for a while.  There is little work for people who are do not have highly specialized skills in a field, meaning that a lack of experience is a ticket to unemployment.  Without that critical first job, resumes are going to continue to fatten on little more than volunteer gigs and coursework.   In an economy with more youth than ever before and an caution when it comes to hiring, the supply and demand curves for energy and optimism are going to look nasty for a while.

I happen to believe that this is a massive national crisis. A year ago, I called for a new WPA to tackle the problem of unemployment generally, and with the generational bent it’s looking more urgent than ever.  We also have to start a discussion on the overhead per employee, or why it’s so expensive to give someone a break.  If we can’t do this, the generation gap that has developed over the nature of work is certainly going to widen.

Call me old fashioned, or even old, but I still think that nothing beats coming home stinking and dirty in the summer to impress a few key values about what it means to work.  That view is likely to disappear completely, for better or worse.

17 thoughts on “First Job

  1. Wow! What’s even more amazing than this stat is that I read it here first. Why isn’t this being talked about more?

  2. I don’t know why a big deal hasn’t been made of this, either. I heard about it first from a friend, who almost certainly heard about it from some news outlet, so it has been out there. But it hasn’t been widely discussed.

  3. I was so proud when my son got his first full time real job this summer at age 16. He would probably not have gotten one had I not pushed him. I wanted to encourage him to take a c.c. meteorolgy course this year so I could hook him up with a high school friend of mine for a hopefully more interesting job in summer of 2010. With his sports and ap classes my idea could not compete. This parenting is hard work. My son gave my daughter his lawn jobs and that involved a little more overseeing on my part. I was so mad once when she turned down a babysitting job one day because that makes a second call less likely.

  4. Though I spent most of my summers doing “unpaid” work at grandma’s house (my parents were teachers so we usually headed to the Bemidji woods for 2 months), I think the value of those summer jobs is important. Youth need to learn the value of time, not just money, and the fact that someday they will need to trade some of their valuable “free” time in order to earn a living. Many people worry that young people live busy, over-programmed lives and I have some worry about that too. But I definitely appreciate the value of those first jobs (mine were babysitting gigs, starting at about age 12) when you _really_ earn your pay. They really make you appreciate it when you later find work with greater responsibility and autonomy, not something that automatically comes along with the first job.

    At one level, these youth have a lot in common with their boomer parents, who also faced heavy competition in the marketplace with a large peer group. However, because many of them have hovering “helicopter” parents, they don’t always know how to navigate the personal niceties of presenting themselves well and playing the social games required to land a job. Also, because many of them have had substantial cash allowances for less-than-substantial household responsibilities, they are less likely to feel compelled to work. Parents may need to be creative about incentives to keep them motivated.

    Great topic!

  5. Dan, Cristy:

    Thanks for bringing this back to the connection between raising the next generation and the state of the economy. Tying up those loose ends is a lot of what this article is about. When we talk about a “culture”, we have to look at all the things that make us who we are – and why we have the attitudes we do.

    The first real work we have is a huge part of how we view our “professional” lives. As someone who has said many times that we are at a kind of cultural dead-end where we either retrace our steps or die, I think the lack of adequate opportunity for the tremendous energy we have right now is a serious problem. It’s also rarely talked about, which makes it worse.

    On an individual basis, we all know in our guts how important this is. We all want our kids to have the right kind of attitude and to know that hard work has its rewards. On a cultural level, that may be either untrue or just some kind of fairytale from daze gone by. That kind of disconnect is scary as all Hell, IMHO.

    I really think that the generational changes we are seeing in this nation and this culture are not being adequately discussed, at least not in the right frames right now. The biggest story of our lives might be passing in front of us untold. That would mean we’re too passive to retrace our steps and content to just let our culture die. I really hope I’m wrong, but in my guts I doubt it.

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