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.