The Death of the Summer Job

Some reflections from the vantage point of Catholic social thought

‘Mowing’ (photo: Shutterstock)

As summer 2022 fades into the rearview mirror, there’s another summer thing that’s increasingly a memory: summer jobs.

Nicholas Eberstadt, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, has done significant research on the phenomenon of “men without work.” A new edition of that pioneering study just came out to account for the impact of COVID-19. Eberstadt delivered a great online public intro to that study Sept. 19, available here.

The most disturbing aspect of Eberstadt’s research is not men who want but can’t find work. They’re as real and common as unicorns. It’s men who could but aren’t looking for work, men who have bowed out of the workforce.

Men who are not working but could are the focus of Eberstadt’s work but not my essay. Rather, I was to concentrate on one chart from his Sept. 19 overview. It is a table entitled “The Death of the Summer Job” that charts rates of 15-17 year olds holding summer jobs from 1976 to the present. (See his video at 51:51.)

(I’ll confess to a personal angle: I had my second summer job, making and packing summer lunches for delivery to urban kids, in 1975 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. It was the first conveyor belt I saw, and I discovered the pleasure of being assigned to carry boxes into the refrigerator on a hot summer day on the factory floor).

Back in the mid-1970s, almost 60% of 15-17 year olds were in the labor force in July. Today, it’s about 25-28%.

As Eberstadt comments, “when I was a young ’un, getting a summer job was a thing.” It was for me, too. It meant I had some of my own pocket money to do with as I pleased, as well as some money to help out with my own expenses. By the end of the decade, it was money earmarked for tuition, and a full summer’s work, even at minimum wage, covered about 75% of it.

That summer job also taught me things I didn’t necessarily want to know back then. Like whether or not I wanted to sleep in, I had to get up. Like my schedule was not wholly my own. Like I was expected to put in an honest effort and not goof off at will. Like the $120 or so that I earned at the end of the week had only so much buying power and that prices were prices. In other words, the summer job was a modern American rite of passage from being a carefree child to becoming a responsible young person and, eventually, adult.

My hometown seemed to have understood that, because it encouraged getting summer jobs. The City of Perth Amboy took the lead, offering jobs in parks, at pools, and even in the sanitation department. My high school publicized other jobs and helped kids with the paperwork for underage work authorization New Jersey required. Recognizing there were jobs that “we really ought to do but never had the time or people for,” other institutions provided jobs based on this “nice to do” work. Father Bob Zamorski, my pastor, needed a new map and accurate parish cemetery survey. That was my summer 1981 job.

Eberstadt doesn’t go into detail about the death of the summer job, because it’s only one piece of his bigger puzzle about the male flight from work. Let me, therefore, suggest some possible reasons for the plummet in summer job participation. I assume that most summer jobs were sought by college-bound students because peers planning to drop out of school (at least in the 1970s and 1980s) were seeking more permanent gigs.

First, college costs. The explosion in college costs far beyond the rate of inflation paradoxically may have depressed the summer job market because, as the ratio between summer earnings and what college expenses they covered widened, the incentive to seek a summer job was reduced. That incentive may have been further diminished by government-guaranteed student loans (that might even be canceled). As noted above, my summer 1977 job could cover about three-quarters of my mandatory college costs. That’s nowhere near true today.

Second, college expectations. Watching my son compete for summer jobs today, I get the impression that some employers imagine they are engaging a COO, not a summer hire. Even if one gets a summer job, is it the “right job?” Given the even more arduous threshold for entry-level jobs, the “right job” (in one’s field) or the “right internship” (often unpaid, which privileges already more well-off young people) becomes an even more valuable asset than just any job that covers a shrinking part of a student’s expenses.

Third, college requirements. Growing numbers of students entering universities arrive with math, reading and writing deficiencies requiring remediation before one can undertake truly higher education. That makes four-year graduation a growing ideal rather than the norm, pushing coursework into summers. Granted, unprepared students raise the question of whether college is for everybody. But until we as a society honestly debate that question outside of political posturing before elections, it is silly to think that young people on the verge of trying to be a “success” in life—as this society defines “success”—are going to be the ones whose choices will change that system.

Fourth, global summers. The United States for many years has promoted a “Summer Work and Travel” visa program for foreign youth. Its rationale was to enable young people abroad to work legally for a summer in the United States, thereby getting acquainted with American culture, seeing a little bit of the country, making a few bucks and generally acquiring a more friendly view of the United States and its people. Whether the program achieves those goals and whether it displaces American youth or pragmatically fills gaps coming from their absence are not being debated here. I note it simply as a potential factor with impact on the summer job market. All I can say, anecdotally, is that 10 years ago I would meet more Russian kids than American ones busing tables in summer restaurants while last year across New England, I encountered lots of hospitality venues that lamented the lack of any summer workers, American or foreign.

Fifth, the busted boom. Eberstadt’s summer jobs table begins in 1976, i.e., when the last of the Baby Boomers were heading to college. The proportion of young people in relation to old in our society is increasingly skewing toward the latter. In itself, that should not alter summer job force participation rates but, coupled with the changing workplace, it likely does. The company for which I packed lunches 47 years ago was locally owned. It no longer exists and the contract to make those lunches has likely been taken over by a mega-corporation. The conveyor belt I saw has likely been multiplied and wholly automated, maybe even robotized. So even the fewer kids from the post-Vietnam “baby bust” are superfluous in such an economic order.

In view of these factors which potentially affect the summer job market, a sentimental return to yesteryear is likely unrealistic. But that doesn’t mean that the reality of the summer job, adapted to today’s realities, is any less important or deserving of social promotion. The waning will to work is a societal cancer that America needs to address. The role of the summer job, viewed as a rite of passage to economic responsibility, can still inculcate lessons workers need (and which some employers complain as being in short supply among today’s workers). This question is too important to leave to green-eye-shaded bean counters. It deserves robust engagement from the vantage point of Catholic social thought.