The Catch-22 of Youth Unemployment

by Alyssa Oursler | September 11, 2012 11:20 am

When I was in high school, having a job was far from a priority. But when I wanted one, I didn’t have too much trouble finding one.

Generally, I picked up a few hours of paid work during the dog days of summer but filled my nights during the school year with things that have become pretty standard for today’s teens: AP homework, sports practices, extracurricular activities.

And while I was lucky enough that my decision to work at all was motivated by a desire to have enough extra cash to catch a movie with friends or stash some away in my savings without really knowing what I was saving for, in hindsight I can’t overlook or overemphasize the value of those summers.

That’s because I was doing much more than just taking care of a four-year-old, folding clothes at Aeropostale or working at a family business on Main Street. I also gained general work skills that so many teenagers are missing out on because nowadays, finding those same simple jobs is far from an easy task.

Today, the number of unemployed teens remains near historic highs. Numbers were already on the rise heading into the Great Recession — possibly thanks to increased pressures in the classroom. But youth joblessness spiked as the financial crisis hit and has remained strikingly high in its aftermath.

More than 23% of youth[1] aged 16 to 19 are unemployed — a number that doesn’t even include all the teens that have given up looking for work altogether. And since the downturn began, more than 2.7 million people aged 16 to 24 have lost or been unable to find jobs.

One reason for this is that young workers tend to be the first fired and last hired. Now especially, they are being squeezed out of the workforce by adults who are taking paychecks wherever they can find them and working at the low-wage positions once snatched by teens during summers or after-school shifts.

Two statistics paint this reality well. About 58% of jobs created in the recovery[2] have been low-wage jobs. At the same time, 58% of available jobs[3] have been taken by workers age 55 and up, thanks to their added experience. Those hires, who are often overqualified by decades, are getting these jobs, of course, over young workers with little or no qualifications.

That in turn gives teens little or no chance to build basic qualifications of their own. I, for one, learned how to interact with adults, how to be on time and manage my time, how to budget and save money and, all-in-all, how to be a part of that thing they call “the real world,” thanks to my few summers of employment. Those summers then helped me get an internship during college and a job right after.

Today’s teenagers thus face a catch-22 of sorts: no skills to qualify them for jobs, and no jobs available to give them basic skills.

Of course, the recession can’t be scapegoated completely. Once again, the increased pressures of school mean many teenagers choose to spend their evenings bolstering their resumes for upcoming college applications instead of clocking in and clocking out. And that trend has even spread to the summer months, with camps and other college-geared activities.

That still seems to be a double whammy, though. Even once that hard work pays off and students make their way to and through college, they’re often rewarded by record amounts of student debt and just as bleak of a job outlook.

Plus, around 44% of teens who do want summer jobs are still unable to find them[4] or have to work fewer hours than they’d like. And again, they’re not just missing out on that extra paycheck, but also on the building blocks of being a successful employee down the road.

In the end, it’s a tough environment all around for today’s youth. And while I had no idea that my odd, summer jobs were so valuable as I was working them, I see it now.

And I also see that, looking back, they were actually a luxury. Sometimes all it takes is one little recession to turn a mere few years ago into the good ol’ days.

  1. More than 23% of youth:
  2. 58% of jobs created in the recovery:
  3. 58% of available jobs:
  4. still unable to find them:

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