The Summer Job


The summer job isn’t as cool as it used to be.

The Atlantic recently reported that the rate at which teenagers obtain employment has been steadily decreasing for decades. Why? Have opportunities decreased as the economy has changed? Are Overwatch and Mass Effect consuming all of their time? What is generation Z up to when school is out?

Research reveals, “Education is to blame, rather than indolence.” Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic, adds, “Teens are remaining in high school longer, going to college more often, and taking more summer classes. The percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in college—both two-year and four-year—has grown by 25 percentage points. That is almost exactly the decline in the teenage labor-force participation rate.”

Ring the bell. School’s in.

Thompson reports that this trend has resulted from several influences. One is that parents and schools are encouraging young people to take more classes. Another reason is that employers are more reluctant to offer them a job, and that increased immigration rates over the past several decades have yielded more competition for work teenagers routinely found available in retail or restaurants. Those jobs are also at times sought by retirees picking up part-time work. Federally funded summer jobs have also declined, the minimum wage has grown (making employers wary of hiring young and inexperienced staff), and unpaid internship opportunities have increased.

Those are the economic reasons for the shift. But Thompson adds one more: cultural changes. He writes:

“Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the social norms of their peers. If they see cool older teenagers scooping ice cream during their freshman summer, they’ll really look forward to a job scooping ice cream during their sophomore summer. But any social feedback loop can spin both ways. Recently, the cultural norm is shifting toward summer classes and unpaid internships rather than summer jobs.”

Thompson also observes that research suggests white adults “feel the strongest nostalgia for summer jobs.” While all ethnicities have seen a decline in summer jobs in the last 40 years, white and wealthy people are most likely to have part-time employment or internship opportunities. Thompson observes, “summer jobs may be yet another vector through which privilege becomes inherited from one generation to the next.”

In ancient Greece, Socrates was recorded as saying that children of his day loved luxury, were rude, disrespectful of their elders, and obsessed with gossip and empty chatter. Assuming the worst about emerging generations is an old habit., and biases often find a way of confirming themselves. But this report from The Atlantic shows a different side to generation Z: they are making a long term investment in their future by pursuing further education.

This report has a couple of implications for churches, the most obvious of which is not to assume the worst about generation Z. But the second implication is more vast and challenging. Younger generations are welcome to use the summer months to continue their education. But for young people who would like to gain work experience, how can churches use existing connections in their fellowship or between churches to increase opportunities for the broadest range of people?

This may mean hosting a rather challenging conversation on race and social privilege to help congregants think theologically about the church and the kingdom of God. This might also mean approaching business and community leaders and encouraging them to broaden the scope of their recruitment process outside of existing connections, especially if those connections are predominantly white. Lastly, this might also require white church leaders to build relationships with minority pastors (and vice-versa) in their community and to ask how they could partner with them in communicating job opportunities for young people of diverse income levels and racial backgrounds

Thompson concludes his report by noting that these trends could change again, and they likely will. There is no need to panic. He also notes that good comes through increased levels of education for the young.

But for  the church, there is an opportunity here to understand generation Z and also to work for justice. Rather than watch and wait, the time is now for action.