We just returned from a summer vacation at the beach. As is my usual affliction, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I can’t help but notice the “little things”. I think it’s the writer’s curse – the inability to simply look past the subtle, in search of some elusive deeper meaning. One little thing I couldn’t help but notice was one that confirms a larger trend I’ve been noticing for years – that young Americans no longer work.
I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. There obviously are young Americans who do work. They just don’t seem to be nearly as numerous as they once were. When I was young, a summer job at the beach was considered a dream job. You could make money and enjoy plenty of off time at the beach or pool. A beach job often came with low cost housing as well. It was an example of working your way to the good life.
But it’s completely different now. At least 90% of the young people working the beach shops and arcades were of foreign origin. Mostly Russian and East European, though a young lady from Ireland waited on us at a popular restaurant a couple of times. She’s returning to college in Ireland in September.
But that begs an obvious question – where are all the American kids who once staffed the beach jobs in abundance?
From what I could see, they were busy enjoying the beach life. There was none of the effort earlier generations expended to get there.
When and why exactly have young adult Americans become entrenched members of the leisure class? And what are the implications for the future?
Young Americans No Longer Work – My Theories
One of my bedrock theories on non-working young people is that the only serious responsibility most kids have today is getting an education (scroll down to the section titled “No apparent responsibilities – other than education”).
If that’s true – and I think it’s become the norm – any serious endeavor outside the education complex is viewed as a distraction from the real prize (a college degree). That includes after school work and summer jobs. So when summer comes around – and there’s no school – there’s nothing left but leisure. Young Americans, who once eagerly sought summer beach jobs, now opt for a life of leisure. That’s complete with services provided by apparently less fortunate young foreign counterparts.
The rise in summer school attendance parallels this trend. Increasing numbers of high school students attend summer school, making summer employment even less likely.
Why Young Americans No Longer Working is Not a Positive Development
I’m fully aware millions of parents – and naturally young people – see no problem with this trend. Education is seen as critical to future successful employment. The exclusive emphasis on schooling seems like a logical course.
But is it really? What could possibly go wrong?
I can think of a few less-than-desirable outcomes:
- All emphasis is placed on a single outcome: the attainment of a college degree. But what if that degree turns out not be the economic panacea it’s expected to be? Millions of college grads have found this out in recent years.
- Increasingly, higher education is being financed by crippling levels of student loan debt. The leisure young people enjoy today may not be as easy to pay back when the bill comes due.
- Young people are being conditioned to a life of being served by others.
- A young person who doesn’t hold a paying job before age 22 or 25 may be far less prepared for employment than commonly assumed. There are certain qualities – punctuality, taking orders, working with customers and clients, and learning the importance of completing your work – that are learned in lower level jobs. This goes double for any future effort at self-employment.
- A life of leisure is costly. Undoubtedly some young people will grow up to be high income earners perpetuating the myth. But the vast majority will fall well short. They’ll find life to be much more difficult than they assumed earlier in life.
- Young people who don’t work don’t apply for work. That will leave them unfamiliar with the job-hunting process that will be critical later in life.
These is just my take on where the absence of young working Americans is leading. I’ll bet you can add a few more.
Final Thoughts on Young Americans No Longer Work
Like a lot of trends common in our culture, this is another phenomenon that barely gets noticed. It’s become another “air and water” topic, that’s so common it’s ignored. It’s that normal. But when we start looking for answers to various complex problems, this is the kind of issue that becomes truly relevant.
Is education alone the only way to train young people for adult life? Or are there other ventures, like after school and summer jobs, that put people in the middle of the employment universe early in life, that are just as important?
When I think about the work I do today to earn a living, I’m increasingly appreciative of some of the many early jobs I held in life that taught me more about how the business and employment worlds work than my education ever did.
And I wonder if today’s young people are missing that important learning phase in favor of a future outcome that may not be as rosy as commonly assumed. More than ever, this generation seems to be being prepared for an adult life that won’t be relevant to the majority. Maybe it it’ll “all work out”, but departing from established norms always carries a price that’s never truly appreciated when it’s playing out.
This may be one of those examples.