Teenagers’ labor force participation : BLS data on the evolution of summer jobs

The FRED Blog has compared employment among teenagers with employment among older workers: Teens no longer participate in the labor market with the same vigor as they did up to 1978. That post also showed how teen employment is clearly seasonal, spiking during the summer when school’s out.

The FRED graph above plots the monthly, not seasonally adjusted labor force participation rate of those 16 to 19 years old (purple spikes) along with the annual, seasonally adjusted value (black dashed line). Clearly, the seasonal swings are extreme and the overall trend has changed over time.

Between 1948 and the 1978 peak, on average, 62% of teens were either employed or looking for a job during the summer months of June, July, and August. The rest of the year, their labor force participation rate ranged between 44% and 48%. Since then, both the seasonal spikes and dips gradually decreased. And, as of 2019, the summertime teen labor force participation rate was down to 41% and the off-season rate was down to 33%. (Of course, the regularity was wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic.)

So, what’s changed with kids today? Maybe some of their music can help us understand the story…

  • In 1962, Brian Hyland’s “Summer Job” consisted of “taking care of the one I love” and “ice cream pops and groovy tans.”
  • In 2021, Chris Lane’s “Summer Job Money” also deals with a romantic infatuation, but the singer also laments the rising costs of a college education and laboring at a minimum-wage job to pay for it.

Structural changes in labor markets are at play here. As better-paid occupations have required more human capital, teens (and their parents) have devoted less of their time to earning a wage. Instead, they strive to advance their formal education. So, despite the claims of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out,” school continues to occupy young people’s minds and time even in the summer.

How this graph was created: Search for and select “Labor Force Participation Rate – 16-19 Yrs., Monthly, Not Seasonally Adjusted.” From the  “Edit Graph” panel’s “Add Line” tab, search for and add “Labor Force Participation Rate – 16-19 Yrs., Monthly, Seasonally Adjusted.” Then edit Line 2 by changing the frequency to “Annual” and the colors of the lines in the “Format” panel.

Suggested by Diego Mendez-Carbajo.