During the summer, American teenagers have traditionally filled jobs — as waiters, for example, or lifeguards, babysitters, landscapers, laborers, or cashiers — that require relatively little formal education. But this rite of passage has become less common for American teens as fewer work in the summer. The decline in teenage employment has been ongoing for decades and affected students, non-students, blacks, whites, Hispanics, younger teens (ages 16 and 17), older teens (18 and 19), and both genders. This is worrisome because research shows that those who do not hold jobs as teenagers often fail to develop the work habits necessary to compete in the labor market, creating significant negative consequences for them later in life.
In a new analysis for the Center for Immigration Studies, Karen Ziegler and I examine teen summer employment in great detail. We project that just 42 percent of U.S.-born teens will have been in the labor force this summer. While this represents a slight improvement over last year, the rate is still well below the 48 percent in 2007, before the Great Recession, or the 61 percent at the peak of the prior expansion, in the summer of 2000. In fact, teen summer employment declined throughout the 1990s despite the generally good economy. The first summer for which we can measure the employment of U.S.-born teenagers separately from that of immigrant teens is 1994. Back then, 64 percent of the U.S.-born were in the summer labor force.
Work does not simply provide teenagers with money; it helps to prepare them for a lifetime of employment. As economist Andrew Sum observed a few years back, “a substantial and growing body of literature on the early labor market experiences of young adults over the past 30 years indicates quite consistently that employment during the high school years generates a diverse number of favorable short-term and long-run positive impacts on their employability, wages, and earnings, especially among those who do not go on to complete any substantive amount of post-secondary education.” About half of American high-school graduates do not go to college.
A number of studies confirm the commonsense idea that working early in life helps lay the foundation for a lifetime of gainful employment. Paul Conway, a former official at the Department of Labor and Office of Personnel Management, has observed that “many of those first-time jobs, even before a career begins, are very formative from some very basic standpoints. They teach the basics of how to operate in a workplace — simple things like arriving on time, working on a team, feeling as though you are being compensated for work that you do.” These skills may sound intangible, but they seem to matter a great deal.
One factor that almost certainly does not explain the decline in teen participation in the labor force is a rise in unpaid internships. My co-researcher and I found that the decline for 19-year-old high-school dropouts is very similar to that for 19-year-olds in college — yet dropouts are unlikely to be in unpaid internships. Moreover, there are nowhere near enough unpaid summer internships to account for the increase since 1994 in the number of U.S.-born teenagers — 4.4 million — not in the summer labor force.
One might think that the decline in teen employment simply reflects higher-income parents’ buying their teenage children everything they want so they do not have to work. But teens from high- and low-income households show similar declines in labor-force participation. Moreover, teens from middle-class backgrounds are still much more likely to work than those from the lowest-income households.
As teenage employment has declined over the past three decades, the immigrant share of the labor force has doubled. And we find, consistent with other research, that immigration probably accounts for a significant share of the decline in teenage work. There is a long and complex debate about the impact of immigration on the wages and employment opportunities of native-born workers generally — I will not go into that here. But it is reasonably clear that immigration, both legal and illegal, has played a significant role in crowding American teens out of the labor market. One reason for this is that immigrants and teenagers often do the same kind of work.
I can’t tell you how often I hear that Americans teenagers will never do farm work and that therefore they cannot be in job competition with immigrants. Just to be clear: Farm jobs are a trivial share of the modern U.S. labor force. At most, 2 percent of all immigrants (legal and illegal) are farm laborers. Among illegal immigrants, Pew Research has estimated, it is just 5 percent. To be sure, immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, make up a large share of farm workers, but farm workers are a tiny share of workers overall and even of immigrant workers. The farm lobby may keep concerns about agricultural labor front and center in the immigrant debate, but in truth, farm workers are largely irrelevant to deliberations about immigration’s impact on American workers.
Farm labor aside, it is a mistake to think that immigrants and American teens seldom do the same kinds of jobs. In the summer of 2017, in the 25 occupations employing the most U.S.-born teenagers, more than one in five workers were immigrants (legal or illegal). That included cashiers, waiters, retail salespersons, cooks, and food-preparation workers. Those job categories alone accounted for 1.8 million U.S.-born teenagers in 2017, as well as 2.3 million immigrants. The notion that U.S.-born teenagers and immigrants never compete for the same jobs is simply wrong.
When we look at teen employment across cities and states, we find a reasonably strong correlation between teenage labor-force participation and the presence of immigrants. In the ten states with the largest shares of immigrant workers in 2017, just 36 percent of U.S.-born teens were in the summer labor force. In contrast, the figure is 49 percent in the ten states with the smallest shares of immigrant workers. It is no coincidence that only 32 percent of U.S.-born teenagers in California were in the summer labor force in 2017, compared with 63 percent in lower-immigration states such as Nebraska and Maine.
The statistical analysis that Karen Ziegler and I conducted showed that an increase of ten percentage points in the immigrant share of the labor force between the mid 1990s and the summers of 2016 and 2017 reduced the labor-force-participation rate of U.S.-born teenagers by about six percentage points, even after we controlled for other factors such as summer-school enrollment, region of the country, and race. These findings are consistent with the analysis of Federal Reserve economist Christopher L. Smith.
The most likely reason that immigrants displace U.S.-born teenagers is that the vast majority of immigrants are fully developed adults — relatively few people migrate before age 20. That gives immigrants a significant advantage over U.S.-born teenagers, who typically have much less work experience.
This highlights the kind of trade-off that is at the heart of the immigration debate. Allowing employers access to large numbers of less-educated immigrant workers through permissive legal immigration and toleration of illegal immigration is good for owners of capital and probably consumers as well. But at the same time, it socializes a large share of our young people out of the world of work, with potentially harmful consequences for them and society.
Some may still argue that American teenagers should simply put their noses to the grindstone and compete with immigrants for jobs. I tend to hear this argument from folks like me, who were teenagers during some period in the 1960s through the 1980s. We faced little immigrant competition, at least in most of the country. How many of us would have been able to out-compete a 26-year-old immigrant (the average age of arrival) when we were 17 or 18?
No doubt work ethic, obsession with video games, drug use, and other factors have played a role in the decline in teen employment. But the level of immigration is something we can control. Conservatives in particular should give careful consideration to the broad impact of immigration on American society before reflexively giving in to the demands of employers who want to admit as many foreign workers as possible.