Summer Jobs Market Bounces Back — But Most Teens Won’t Work Anyway

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Hey teenagers, your chances of landing a summer job appear to have vastly improved. A new report shows that the number of teenagers hired in May 2012 was more than double the figure from May 2011, indicating that the jobs market for teens, which has languished since 2007, is rebounding in a big way. For the vast majority of American teens, though, increased hiring won’t matter—because they’re not interested in getting jobs.

According to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 160,000 American teenagers were hired last month. In May of 2011, by contrast, only 71,000 teens landed jobs. Even that was better than the year before, when a pathetic 6,000 teenagers were hired in May of 2010, which led into the worst summer for teen employment since the years after World War II, when returning servicemen often competed with high school kids for jobs.

While teenagers should be the most excited to hear about the improved summer jobs market, most probably won’t take notice. As the Los Angeles Times and others have noted, “the number [of teens] who aren’t looking for work has steadily risen since 1994.”

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Last summer, 1.1 million Americans ages 16 to 19 found summer jobs, up from 960,000 the summer before. In both cases, per NPR, the figures meant that slightly less than 30% of teens who could work were working. In the ’90s and through 2000, by contrast, more than 50% of this demographic were regularly working summer jobs.

The awful state of the jobs market in recent years—summer jobs or otherwise—have surely played a role in declining teen employment. In many cases, teens have been competing for jobs with people in their 20s or older who are out of work, who are desperate to please any boss in return for a check, and who have more work experience than the typical teenager.

But there’s something else playing a role in years of declining teen employment. Namely, the fact that many teens aren’t even trying to get hired. A Baltimore Sun story cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey from last summer about teen employment. Simply put, the vast majority of teens “said they did not want to work.”

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As is so often the unfortunate case in society, it’s the individuals who stand to gain the most who are left out in this situation. Another report, from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, states:

Low income youth are the least likely to work. Last summer, only 1 out of every 5 teens (21%) from a low income family (under $20,000 in pre-tax annual money income) had a job.

Low-income African American teens were the least likely (14%) to have summer jobs during the summer of 2011. Families with incomes in the $100K-$150K range were the most likely to have teens who were working in the summer (41%).

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As the Baltimore Sun story reports, many teens are deciding against paid summer jobs in favor of unpaid internships, which hopefully will provide career dividends down the line. There is more than meager wages to be gained from even the seemingly dumbest of summer jobs, though. Deemed an entitled, spoiled generation, millennials are often criticized in the workplace because they haven’t learned how to be disciplined or how to properly and respectfully deal with clients, colleagues, and bosses.

These are the types of lessons one learns from a summer job. And these are lessons, unfortunately, that only a small minority of teens are learning nowadays.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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