Joblessness Among Youth Impacts Wider Society

September 3, 2011

Sonari Glinton

Not having a summer or after-school job affects more than just a kid's wallet. It also has real consequences for his or her personal and economic development.

While the overall unemployment rate is stuck at 9.1 percent, the unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds has been going up since February. Currently 25.4 percent of teenagers who want jobs can't find them.

Kyle Hughes, 17, works in the cramped quarters of Dairy Queen in downtown Brighton, Mich. He puffs up with pride when he shows how a real expert makes a Blizzard. Besides knowing how to perfectly dip a cone, Kyle says he's learned some real lessons, like working with others, dealing with rude customers and managing his own money.

Heather Burrone, 19, says one thing she's learned at the Dairy Queen is that she doesn't want to make a career out of working there.

"I remember when I first started working here someone made me cry," she says. "It toughened me up a little bit. It got me a little bit used to criticism. It does make you a little bit tougher and understand how some people don't try to be mean to you, but they are."

It may seem trivial the lessons these teenagers are learning, but they form the foundation for a lifetime of work, says Dave Brewer, who studies the transition from adolescence to adulthood at Cornell University. He says teens who have jobs in high school are much more likely to have them when they're adults – and that's not all.

"They go to college and complete college at greater rates, and so it's a very powerful indicator of career development and success after high school," Brewer says.

Getting and keeping a job also has a more immediate impact.

"[Students with jobs] tend to drop out at a lower rate. They also are more engaged in school because they understand why they're in school," Brewer says. "They're thinking about their careers and what they need to learn, the skills they need to obtain, the credentials they need to work toward when they go to college."

At the Prospect Park skate park in Ypsilanti, Mich., Ras Wright, 18, says he's been looking for work since the winter. He says he's applied for at least 15 jobs, including at Burger King and a couple restaurants.

"I get hassled by my mom," he says. "I'm trying, but it's just they don't call back."

Rutgers University economist Bill Rodgers says unless teens keep busy doing something useful, it's really hard for them to stay out of trouble.

"If these kids are idle for several summers, they potentially can get pulled toward illegal behavior," he says. "Once they get connected to the criminal justice system, the road becomes much more choppy."

Rodgers says not only will teens pay a price the longer they're delayed getting their first job, but so will society.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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