I can't claim to have crunched any independently gathered data on the subject. But my casual observation of relatives, and the children of friends, confirms this observation. Compared to when I was a teen (in the mid-1980s) fewer teens today are spending the summer working at the mall, at the local grocery store, and in fast food restaurants.
What the heck happened? Are today's teenagers simply lazy?
Well, no lazier than I was as a teenager. But when I was a teen, I had no choice. Getting a job was simply something that you did during the summer.
I remember working at the local KFC during the summer of '84 as kitchen help. It was grueling, nasty work. I had to break frozen chicken breasts in preparation for frying. They were dumped into a big Rubbermaid trash can, still coated with ice. I had to do all the work by hand.
My employer was too cheap to provide rubber gloves. The chicken bones were sharp, and I bled into the chicken.
(This was just before AIDS became a national concern, by the way. But since I'd barely even kissed a girl at that point, I think all the KFC patrons were safe---even if they wouldn't have liked the idea of a little extra A positive blood with their chicken.)
But I digress. Back to the notion of lazy twenty-first century teens. As noted above, most teenagers, if left to their own devices, would prefer to avoid the structure of a job. No mystery there.
(And again: That is the way it has always been. My grandfather didn't spend his summers during the 1930s doing farm work because he wanted to; he spent his summers doing farm work because he had to.)
But there's a bit more to it than the teenager's inherent aversion to structure, including the following factors:
1.) The Internet. The U.S. has lost tens of thousands of retails jobs in recent years, mostly because of the shift to e-commerce. (No surprise here: Two malls within driving distance of my house have closed since 2010.)
2.) New, highly motivated competition: Low-skilled immigrants and retirees now compete with teens for minimum-wage work. Which would you rather hire? a.) A thirty-five year-old breadwinner from Mexico who is working to feed his family, b.) a 65-year-old retired office worker with 40 years of job experience, or c.) a tattooed suburban teenager, who would rather give up oxygen than her cell phone?
3.) The rising minimum wage: When I was a teen, the national minimum wage was $3.35. Today the minimum wage is $7.25, with numerous states and municipalities imposing even higher minimum wages. This effectively prices many teens out of the market (especially when they're competing with retirees who may be seen as more reliable employees). Thank the progressive overlords of the Democratic Party, who always seem to be on the wrong side of basic economic theory.
4.) Unpaid internships. The biggest scam since the Ponzi scheme. But that's a whole other topic.
Some of the studies have also cited "enrollment in classes" as a factor. Hmmm. I won't dismiss this one out of hand, but I'm skeptical. You may have noticed that your unemployed 16-year-old son isn't spending the summer earning college credits in organic chemistry. He's spending the summer sleeping late, playing video games, and hanging out with his friends.
I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between the "teens as lazy freeloaders" and "teens as victims of inexorable economic change" arguments.
There probably are fewer summer work opportunities for teens than there were in 1980, at the height of the shopping mall expansion boom. But since the summer job is no longer a set expectation, your teenager may not exactly be pounding the pavement in search of work, either.
No reasonable person wants to see a return to Dickensian child labor practices. There is a need for balance and prioritization. When I was a kid, there were teens who worked so many hours that it negatively impacted their studies.
But the teen summer job of yore had its benefits. My summer in the bowels of the local KFC taught me to appreciate what I had--thanks to my hardworking parents. That summer taught me something else, too: that I did not want to spend the rest of my life working in the bowels of a KFC.