Are We Raising America’s Most Unemployable Generation?

What happens when high-school kids can't (or don't) work part-time summer jobs.

I do an exercise in my persuasive writing classes where the students have to write about the worst job they ever had. I’ve been doing this exercise for at least 10 years; it works as a way to show them how much specific details matter. I get volunteers to read their pieces aloud and then we discuss them: Do you agree that was a bad job? Why? Etc. Just because this is America, we also frequently pick the winner of the worst job. Here’s the problem: More and more frequently, hands go up when I first give the assignment, and students say, “What should I do if I never had a job?”

In Time a few weeks ago, Erika Christakis’s piece “Too Busy for a Summer Job? Why America’s Youth Lacks Basic Work Skills” cited this statistic: Less than half of the country’s 16-to-24-year-olds had part-time jobs.

My first part-time job was serving at Shriners’ banquets at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, on Saturdays, when I was 15. The Shriners, all of whom were white-haired and very old by my 15-year-old perception, would come in lit up enough from the pre-banquet cocktails that they’d not realize how long they stared at our 15-year-old bodies in tight polyester uniforms, or how limp their salads had become from sitting out on the tables. Once, I accidentally spilled a cup of hot coffee down a man’s back, and he didn’t even flinch.

My oldest daughter got a job as soon as she turned 16, and has the same job five years later, as an activities coordinator at Collingswood Manor, a senior citizens’ home. She knew she had to get a job, but said she didn’t want to scoop ice cream; she wanted her time spent at work to have actual value. In five years, she has bonded with, and lost, so many residents there, but she does seem to truly enjoy buying them puzzles out of her own money, thinking up seasonal crafts and activities, etc. She commutes back home from college two weekends a month to keep that job.

Though I always had part-time jobs, I was not nearly as altruistic as my daughter: I worked at a bowling alley snack bar, a drugstore luncheonette (later immortalized in Silence of the Lambs), American Eagle (back when it still carried outdoor gear), and Kennywood Amusement Park (yes, life there was pretty much exactly how it was depicted in Adventureland). I quit jobs because I wanted off for a big party on a Friday night. I took jobs knowing I would be quitting in a month to go back to school or on a family vacation; I quit working at the Ponderosa Steakhouse because I hated the fake cowhide uniform. It didn’t matter; I could always get another job. When I try to tally up my workplaces, I know I miss a few, but the number is somewhere around 25.

But, times have changed. Christakis (and others) say the competition to get into prestigious schools pushes students into taking unpaid internships in their chosen fields over the summer, rather than delivering pizza or working at bike rentals. And certainly, the recession has caused a seismic shift in that recent college graduates are forced to take the same jobs that the undergrads want and need, as the Inquirer‘s “Highly Educated, Deeply in Debt” series thoroughly covers.

My 18-year-old daughter has babysat her whole “working life,” as well as painted faces and blown up balloons for special days at Collingswood’s farmers’ market. Needing money for an on-campus apartment has forced her to look for more consistent income at the shops and restaurants in our town, but she hasn’t had any luck. She applied at a coffee shop, and when I bumped into the owner, an ex-student of mine from Rutgers, he said that he had received 30 applications in one week—a record.

It’s easy to make fun of the students who write that having to get up in the morning makes their job “the worst.” I’ve had student co-ops who think it’s OK to come in late, or not at all, because they are too hungover (which they have no shame admitting to me), or to make hair appointments during work hours. The generational divide is apparent in reactions to the first episode of HBO’s Girls. My daughters and students were outraged that her parents cut her off financially, with no warning; I was outraged that 1) they had paid for her living expenses for a full two years after graduation; and 2) that any company (even a literary magazine!) would take advantage of a young person by having them work unpaid for that long.

Many young people are in-between a rock and a hard place: They need to portray themselves as dedicated to their chosen disciplines for college acceptance and job applications, and part-time jobs aren’t as easy to procure as they used to be. Add to this the helicoptering and hand-holding of so many parents, the perception of entitlement so many parents have instilled in their kids, and we may have a kind of perfect storm of a generation who may well be ill-prepared for the realities of the workplace.