Teenagers in the post-COVID workforce | American Enterprise Institute


As the COVID-induced recession has morphed into a post-COVID boom, we’ve shifted from high unemployment to a tight labor market virtually overnight. This spike in demand for workers is benefiting one group in particular: teenagers. As the below graph from The New York Times shows, the share of teenagers working is reaching levels unseen since before the Great Recession. Average wages for these workers has gone from $9 per hour last year to $13 per hour, and in the most recent employment report, increases in teen employment significantly outpaced all other categories of workers.

Across the country, teenagers are finding more work than usual due to a number of factors. Less immigration, the lingering effects of stimulus payments and pandemic unemployment benefit top-ups, and problems with childcare are all reasons cited for helping to limit the labor supply among prime working-age populations. Teenagers generally don’t contend with many of these problems. While there remain concerns about lagging employment among Black/Hispanic teens along with worry about teenagers dropping out of school in favor of work, this boom in teen employment opportunities is a good thing.

At the broadest level, teens learn a great deal about life from summer jobs. They are introduced to a world that is completely different in expectations from what they have experienced in their family, schools, and community groups which have mostly focused on serving, educating, and equipping them for the future. A job is the first actual taste of this future, and it begins to illustrate the demands of adult life. These jobs also impart important general employment skills, including how to work with others, satisfy employers, and serve customers — none of whom are going to respond in the exact way we might prefer. Finally, early work experiences help young people refine their interests, in both positive and negative senses. For instance, working on a farm as a teen taught me perseverance in hard, unpleasant tasks, but it also reminded me I needed a lot more education if I wanted to realize a future in something less physically demanding and more attuned to my interests.

For disadvantaged and disconnected teens, summer employment can be especially important. A 2017 Brookings study found that participants in a Boston summer youth employment program had fewer arraignments for violent/property crimes and showed improvements in skills, aspirations, and social/emotional skills. An expansion of publicly-funded jobs programs for youth, as well as programs to help youth better connect to the regular job market, might help capitalize on this momentum and address several big problems at once.

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