Youth unemployment has many reasons

There was an opinion article recently in the Albany Times-Union that caught my eye.  The problem is the declining level of summer employment in the 16 to 19 age bracket.  This year, approximately one-third of these teens will be employed this summer, down from 52% a decade ago – and even that was a decline from previous times.   The article goes on to discuss the various explanations that have been given for this trend, ranging from increased attendance at summer school to illegal immigration to pay.  None of it explains it all.

My own opinion is that it’s likely a wide range of “causes,” which combined have led to this.  One that I didn’t see addressed, is that some opportunities for summer employment that used to exist  have been legislated out of existence.  This was done in the name of protecting children from “dangerous” work environments,  a laudable goal, but at the same time, no alternatives were created.

What do I mean, by “used to exist?”  When I was sixteen, I had a summer job working on a town “brush crew.”   Our job was to go out with limb clippers, scythes,  and saws to clear the overgrown brush at the town reservoirs and parks.   When we weren’t doing that, we were mowing the grass at various town facilities.  It was hard, hot, sweaty work.  Necessary, yes.  Someone had to keep the brush cut back or mow the grass, so it fell to those of us in need of a summer job and strong of back to get it done.    It turns out it was a pretty common summer job for people of my era.    Today, it doesn’t exist.  No one is going to allow 16 and 17 year-olds to run around with cutting implements like that, and I’ve been told it’s  illegal in this state to allow anyone under the age of 18 to operate a lawn mower.   My sisters worked in various restaurants and bars, as cooks, waitresses, and even filling in as bartenders. They were all doing this before the age of 18 – which, at the time was legal drinking age. Today, many of their summer jobs would be strongly constrained – if not outright illegal – if they were doing them. In short, the jobs that we used to do would get our employers in big trouble if they were to try to have us do it today.

I know there was a “good reason” for the laws. The idea is to protect our children from doing things that are dangerous. Yes, it was rather dangerous to cut brush – after all, you’re working with sharp objects that can – and have – seriously injured someone. Limbs can – and have – fallen wrong, and caused injury. Lawnmowers can do a lot of damage improperly used. It’s probably not a good idea to have a teenager serving alcohol. All of those things make sense, so to spare the young the potential of injury, it’s been made illegal to have them do it.

All well and good, but a whole series of jobs that used to be available to them are no longer legal – they’re gone. The big problem with that? Nothing was created as an alternative. There are no equivalent jobs that came into being to substitute for those jobs. The result? There’s fewer jobs available to them. While I make no claims to it being the only explanation for the decline in youth employment – there are many – it is an explanation for the loss of some of it, and it’s often the one that gets overlooked in the analyses.


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