Kendra Lodewyk, 16, can’t talk to her mom about what it’s like to be a high school student in 2018.
Not because of cell phones or Snapchat or Tide Pod consumption — but because Lodewyk, whose school day starts at 6:25 a.m. and who gets four hours of sleep a night, has practically every minute of her days scheduled for the next two years.
“She was a scholar, she was very intelligent, but she didn’t have as much as we had going on,” said Lodewyk, who lives in the Central Michigan town of Bay City, as she completed her Algebra II homework on a Tuesday evening. “I don’t know, it’s just different.”
One of the biggest differences between the lives of today’s teens and their parents’: a lack of a job. Lodewyk doesn’t have a part-time job and she won’t be getting one this summer. Even with school out, Lodewyk said she and her friends too busy for a summer gig.
That’s thanks in part to the recent introduction of summer homework, which accompanies many of the Advanced Placement and honors classes at her school. Before her sophomore year, she had two books to read and annotate and two papers. This summer is certain to be worse.
And there’s a bevy of extracurriculars that lure teens across America, even in the summer. “Those seem more necessary to me than a job would,” 15-year-old Jake Zucker, who lives in the wealthy Boston suburb of Brookline, told Business Insider. “They sort of enrich my learning in a way that potential careers for a 15-year-old wouldn’t necessarily do.”
It’s a select group of kids who can afford to evade summer work because they have too much homework. But even some of the teens who need jobs are having trouble getting them.
Low-income teens are locked out of work because they don’t have the sort of connections that middle- or upper-class students have: the neighborhood parent who can shell out $10 an hour for a babysitter, or the family friend who needs an assistant at their law firm, Paul Harrington, professor of labor markets and policy at Drexel University, told Business Insider.
“It’s much tougher for those kids to get hooked up because no one is brokering them in,” Harrington said. “This tremendously important experience of working is not available to these kiddos.”
Many of the jobs that these teens would take are being filled by unemployed college graduates, older workers or those born outside the US, according to a 2017 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Teen employment has been steadily decreasing since 1979, with a steeper decrease yet since 2000. In 1995, two-thirds of teens got summer jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Around 43% did in 2016.
Year-round teen employment has also tanked. Employment among teens in 2015, the last year for which data is available, is down 34% since 2000.
It peaked in 1979, when 58% of teens had a job.
In the 2010s, almost half of teens were enrolled in school during the summer. Only 10% were in 1985.
One of the key reasons for the surge in teen unemployment is the push towards more schooling. A bachelor’s degree has become a requirement rather than an option for many desirable jobs, and college-bound students must take a certain course load to be considered for admission.
This renewed focus is “a large part” of why labor rates are so low, Teri Morisi, a branch chief at the Bureau of Labor Statistics who researches teen and youth employment trends, told Business Insider.
Students are in more rigorous classes than ever, according to data from the Department of Education. Nearly a third of high school graduates from 2009 took three years of hard sciences compared to 11% in 1982. And 40% of those in the Class of 2009 graduated with three or more years of foreign language, compared to 15% in 1982.
That carries over into the summer, as well. Along with a slew of admissions-only academic summer camps and standardized test preparation, there’s summer homework.
For this school year in Chino High School in Chino, California, students enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology had to read chapter one of their textbook, take “Cornell notes,” make flash cards of all key terms, summarize a scientific article, write their own scientific article, and conduct an experiment on plant leaf lengths, summarized in a lab report. This was due the first day of class with a test on the second day.
“Don’t start behind… get it done!” reads the summer homework packet.
For students taking more than one Advanced Placement course, their summer calendars quickly fill up. As for Lodewyk, she’s stressed.
“School is more ‘Can I get through this?’ rather than what I’m learning and what will benefit me in the future,” Lodewyk said. “It’s like, ‘Can I survive this year?’ That’s what it feels like. It’s hard.”
Jobs for teens pay worse today than they did in 1979, and teens say school is more important.
Zucker, the 15-year-old from Brookline, has never looked for a job and probably won’t do so anytime soon. He’s too busy with school, summer camp, running, the school newspaper, and school plays.
Where Zucker lives, he said, “there’s more of an emphasis placed on education and the time you spend there is seen as having more reward. There’s less of an emphasis on individual work to get things.”
The pay from a summer job wouldn’t buy him much, anyway. In 2014, according to the BLS, teens’ median hourly wage was $8.43. But in 1979, when teens reached peak employment, the inflation-adjusted wage was $9.42.
But Stephanie Coontz, the Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, maintains there’s a sort of intangible quality that working young provides. It provides a rare chance for teens to interact with adults outside of their family and school.
“It taught young people the ropes of workplace,” Coontz said. “There was this socialization into the workforce and working with other people.”
It’s yet another symbol that this generation is growing up more slowly than the ones before it.
The falling labor rate is in line with other studies showing that Gen Zs are growing up more slowly. Once in their teen years, those born in the early 1990s to the mid-2000s have been shown to be less likely to have sex, go on dates, try drugs, learn to drive, and other markers of adolescence.
“There’s a more competitive atmosphere in terms of getting into college, so people don’t really have the luxury of doing other things, whether that’s a job or partying and drinking,” Zucker told Business Insider.
Coontz said this generation hasn’t had the chance to experiment with the “virtues and vices of adulthood.” They also haven’t had the practical experiences: negotiating with an employer, budgeting a minimum wage, monitoring rebellious children as a babysitter, learning how to pack a grocery bag without crushing the eggs.
A lack of employment is worse yet for teens who won’t attend a four-year college or those who are from low-income families, Harrington said. Their life success is based on what they do from ages 16 to 24, but a quarter of young people in Philadelphia, where Harrington resides, aren’t in school or working.
“The life path of these kids is really dented,” Harrington told Business Insider. “It’s going to take a lot for them to really recover.”
As for driving, the proportion of 16-year-olds with a driver’s license has fallen from 46% in 1983 to 25% in 2016.
Happily, Lodewyk reported that she’s taking her driver’s test in two weeks. She was too busy before. “I’m 16 and a half and I’m just being able to achieve this life goal of driving,” Lodewyk said.
The problem for Lodewyk, once she has her own car, is that she won’t be able to do her summer homework while her parents drive her to acting camp or voice lessons. “During car rides, I’m usually studying, annotating, and doing some types of outlines.”