The drama of teen employment unfolds in front of Sue Paustenbach almost daily at Maciano’s Pizzeria and Pastaria in Aurora, Ill.
In addition to managing the place, Paustenbach is the mother of a 16-year-old. But while Paustenbach started working at age 14, clearing tables at a golf course restaurant, she does not expect — nor necessarily want — her own son to hold down a steady job during his high school years.
“The one thing that’s different,” Paustenbach said when comparing today’s teens with herself as a teen 30 years ago, “is that I think they have a lot more going on. It seems like they have a lot more responsibility than I had when I was a teenager.”
Fewer teenagers have jobs or are looking for jobs this year than at any time since researchers started gathering statistics on such things in 1948. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 33 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are in the labor force, meaning they are employed or looking for jobs. Thirty years ago, when teen employment was at its peak, almost 60 percent of them were in the labor force.
Conventional cynicism might suggest the trend shows that today’s teens are a lazy bunch, distracted, maybe even hypnotized by — or addicted to — video games, Facebook and texting.
The truth is a little more nuanced. Sure, kids might shoulder some responsibility for the historic low. But so do their parents.
The bureau’s research indicates that parental emphasis on education and related extracurricular activities and community service are significant factors in the declining percentage of teens employed or looking for work. In other words, kids aren’t working because, at least in part, their parents don’t want them to be.
The evidence suggests that parents are “more willing to have their kids participate in school instead of in a job,” said Teresa Morisi, an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics with the bureau. “Also it suggests that they would substitute volunteer work for paid employment.”
School enrollment for teens last year had grown to 83 percent, from 73 percent in 1985, bureau figures show. And the number of high school students completing advanced courses and taking Advanced Placement exams also is rising. Figures from the College Board, the nonprofit education association that administers the Advanced Placement Program, show that 1.7 million students in the U.S. took 2.9 million AP exams last year. A decade earlier, 686,000 students took 1.1 million AP exams, the College Board reported.
The recession clearly is playing a part, and Morisi noted that she is unable to distinguish what portion of teen unemployment is due to the economic downturn. But the overall trend of teen employment has been dropping, except for a couple of hiccups, since about 1981 — in recessions and periods of robust economic health alike.
At Maciano’s, Paustenbach said many of the 15 or so teen employees she manages are involved in sports or other extracurricular activities that cut down on the time they have available for work.
Her son, Aaron, is enrolled in a couple of honors courses and playing football this year. Aaron participated in a summer baseball league, and a summer workout program for the football team occupied chunks of four days each week, she said.
When he can squeeze it in, he passes out fliers for Maciano’s and helps clean the restaurant, Paustenbach said, and that’s exactly the way she wants it. She doesn’t want to weigh down his dreams of a career in sports journalism with a menial job.
“I believe in school first, over everything,” Paustenbach said. “I just want to be sure that he has every opportunity to follow his dreams, and I’ll do whatever I can to help, because I didn’t do it.”
Kelsey Marks runs into similar sentiment at times from her parents. Marks, 17, who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., in May, was captain of the lacrosse team and was a leader of her Young Life Christian group. She participated in another youth group at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Naperville and was a high-achieving student who took college-level classes in calculus, speech, anatomy and physiology.
She worked for a while, too, at Players Indoor Sports Center. But when lacrosse tryouts started in March, something in her schedule had to give, and her parents pointed to the job. She quit but began working as a lifeguard once school ended for the year.
“They’ve always been supportive,” Marks said. “But there have been times when they’ve said that I need to slow down a little bit and take a break.”
Her mother, Cindy Marks, said her daughter is a “very driven and assertive individual. Our philosophy is family first, then school work, then your athletics and then work. She tries to balance all that and it gets overwhelming sometimes, even if you take work off the plate.”
Beyond increasingly nudging their teenage sons and daughters from employment, adults are stunting the teen job market in another way.
“The data shows that more older people are competing for the jobs that teens would normally get,” Morisi said. In a review of the retail and restaurant industries, two sectors that employ more teens than any other, Morisi found that those businesses added workers between 2000 and 2007.
But the percentage of teens working in those industries declined during that time.
Jocelin Fuller, 17, who graduated in May from Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Ill., said she applied to five restaurants and about 10 stores in a job search that started last September.
“I think so many people are out there looking for jobs,” she said, “and so many of those people are older than me.”
Apart from the basic life skills of managing money and time, a job for a teenager can nurture other important traits, said David Gottlieb, a Homewood, Ill.-based child and adolescent psychologist who has been in practice since 1985.
“It can be a big confidence booster,” he added. “They usually do pretty well and earn some praise and make some money. They see that they can do things in this world.”
Having a job also gives a teen “experience in what the real world is like, particularly if they have a menial job,” Gottlieb said. “It can motivate them to do better in school and make them think about the direction they want to take.”
Teens without jobs can too easily fall into hours of TV watching or video game play, Gottlieb said. That pattern can lead to anxiety, anger, even trouble with the law, he said.
Howard Madison of Naperville said he supported the choice of his daughter, Ashley, 15, to work for some of those other-than-financial reasons.
“It’s just good for her to get used to being employed,” he said. “It gives her a chance to see what it’s like to be in the work force and to be dealing with different people.”
Ashley said her father’s attitude is uncommon among her friends. Many of the teens she knows want jobs, she said, “to make money and to have something to do over the summer. But their parents aren’t letting them. They say that their parents say they’re too young.”
Ashley herself was an unusual success story. She went to the KidsMatter Student Job Fair in March at North Central College in Naperville and applied for one job at one place: lifeguard with the Bolingbrook Park District. She got a call about two weeks later, took training and passed the lifeguard test.
But Ashley had been preparing for the position for a decade.
“We’ve had her in swimming classes since she was 5 or 6 years old,” Madison said. “This is the only job she’s really qualified for.”