July 19 (Bloomberg) — It's camp season, the time when parents trek to visit their children and dip a toe in the lake where they swim. Watching them show the skills they've accumulated, we're happy to see them, and happy they're not home draped on the living room couch.
Many of us also have a secret hope: Maybe those new skills will translate shortly into a job.
Don't count on it. Among 16- to 19-year-olds who said they were available for work last year, only 44 percent did work, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's down from 58 percent in the late 1970s. And the 2005 number doesn't include those teenagers who said that they weren't available. The BLS predicts even fewer teens will work in future.
American parents engage in an exquisite form of self-deception. We tell ourselves we want kids to work. But in practice, we find justifications for kids not working, or we find them non-jobs and then pretend those jobs are as good as paid ones. It's a semester-to-semester process, but one that builds and costs both generations.
The postponing starts in high school, when many kids are ready to work, at least part-time. But parents find other things that are more important than working. What could be more important than speeding up a 16-year-old's pitch? The college resume is also a big concern.
Parents' idea of a useful August for a 17-year-old is sending him or her off to Stanley Kaplan so he can score better on the advanced placement chemistry test. To be sure, there are jobs around, but in suburbia and exurbia, those jobs tend to be many stoplights away.
College merely extends the job-free period. There, the unpaid internships get serious. Our culture likes every child to do a few internships — unpaid time helping out a museum curator, unpaid time watching someone else trade stocks. When it comes to paid work, in or out of college, there's less of it happening than there used to be.
Following college, parental self-deception ascends to an art form. Our offspring don't work because they are studying, we say. Many young people jump from internship to internship, sometimes into their late twenties.
It feels good to be able to tell the fellow in the next beach chair that your daughter is interning somewhere classy. Better than saying she's at the Dairy Queen. But unpaid internships are like islands, and the world of jobs is like the lake at camp. Hopping from island to island is not the same as getting in the swim.
Learn to Earn
There is a counterargument: that working less means studying more, a rational decision nowadays. After all, as the Hudson Institute's Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a labor market scholar, notes, "today people with BAs earn a higher multiple of the non-skilled person's salary than they did two decades ago. In 1978 college graduates earned twice as much as those who did not finish high school. That ratio is now 2.7 to one." Furchtgott-Roth thinks unpaid internships are valuable.
Still the non-work trend is dismaying, and not merely because of the added financial burden for individual families. The paucity of young people on the job means we all, including the childless, have less chance to talk to teenagers than our parents did, and less to talk about with them too.
Unpaid interns can't always see the task at hand, and thus tend to antagonize employees. Those employees aren't often willing to articulate the problem, but they resent babysitting someone else's distracted child.
Soccer to Weddings
The consequences are more serious for kids. By postponing work they seem to be enjoying an endless summer, moving seamlessly from soccer clinic (age 14) to destination weddings (age 26). But they also doom themselves to remain like the Anne Hathaway character in the film "The Devil Wears Prada" — failing in the office because she remains intent on getting an A in the seminar.
This month, Pfizer Inc. executive Bob Miglani published a book on the redeeming value of work — at Dairy Queen, in fact. "Treat Your Customers: Thirty Lessons on Service and Sales That I Learned at My Family's Dairy Queen Store" (Hyperion, 160 pages).
"Always Replace a Dropped Cone" — serve the customer even when he is the one at fault. "Always Offer Your Delivery Guy a Milkshake" — remember to treat vendors well. Such rules are harder to absorb when you're the one buying the ice cream, not the one selling it.
But the big reason kids should work for money is simple: they like it. One of the magic moments of life is when you do finally slip into that great aqueous body known as the workforce. Suddenly you are getting money for the same skills that, just yesterday, you had to pay to practice: writing, marketing, crunching numbers. When it comes to self-esteem, immersion in work is worth 10 hours of anger-management counseling. A flexible country like ours can find a way to burnish CVs and employ teens at the same time.
So as August looms, parents may want to think twice about chiding the bodies lounging in the living room. We are failing to recognize what they already know: It's not work until someone pays them for it.
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions are her own.)
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