The Bygone Days of the “Summer Job” and the Sharp Decline of Youth Employment—a South End Perspective

by Jessie McKenna and Marti McKenna

Summertime: Long, light-filled days and a brief respite from the overcast skies of fall, winter, and even spring here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a time when kids are out of school and running their flip-flopped feet to the beaches of Lake Washington or their closest public pool to soak up the sun. It’s also the season when some of the youth of our communities dip their toes in the local workforce. For 40-plus years, as many as 58-percent of youth on average found employment in the summertime, but, beginning in the early ’90s, a series of recessions and other shifts in youth employment dynamics changed that.

For young people who did manage to land work this summer, now is the time of year when they would start to transition out of a summer job and into the back-to-school mindset. But data recently released in a new Pew Research Center report shows that in the summer of 2017—nearly 10 years after the Great Recession—only about a third of youth, ages 16 to 19, had jobs, a small increase from the previous summer  (“summer” defined as June–August) and part of a steady increase over all prior summers since the recession. The increase is noteworthy, but the numbers are far from what they once were, and this summer likely didn’t see a major uptick.

Historically, youth employment rises sharply in the summer and falls in early September (when school used to start), but the Pew Research study shows how youth employment rates, and with them the prospects of a “summer job,” have declined over the last few decades. Youth employment down-shifted hard and fast during the recession of 1990–91 and recovered slowly throughout the decade. It stabilized at around 50 percent, only to decline again in 2001 when another recession hit the U.S. economy. Youth employment rates rose somewhat in the mid-2000s, but young job-seekers were among the most impacted in 2008 by the Great Recession that began in December of 2017.


Mahilet Tito, 23, a young woman of color, works at The Station coffee shop on Beacon Hill. She says that finding her first job, at 16, wasn’t difficult. This would have been about the same time the Great Recession began to unfurl its lasting damage on the U.S. economy. She grew up in the Central District and went to Garfield High. She said of a Safeway store on East Madison Street, “Everybody from Garfield worked there.” When she applied, she too was hired. Many fellow students also worked at the nearby McDonald’s. This was during the school year, so these students would have been working after school and on weekends.

Co-worker Carlos Nieto, also 23, found work relatively easily as a 17-year-old at the beginning of the recession. He got a job busing tables at El Sombrero in Columbia City through someone he knew who worked there.

Tito and Nieto are the lucky ones. They knew the right people at the right time and, even at the start of the recession, landed their first jobs easily, entering the workforce and staying there steadily ever since.

Others are competing with older applicants and often have chosen not even to apply. Not only are fewer young people apparently looking for jobs, employers are also more likely to hire adults, particularly senior citizens in some sectors, for the same positions that were once held in large part by youth—a lingering effect of the Great Recession.

There’s a notion in the U.S. that the summer job is a rite of passage, an idea that conjures up images of pimple-faced lifeguards in red swimsuits admonishing running children or youth in matching polo shirts and sun visors dishing up ice cream. But often average youth, much less so the most marginalized youth, can’t attain these jobs anymore—if they ever could. Even being able to be a lifeguard is couched in a deep history of racism.

Are these summer jobs of yesteryear truly within reach of youth of color at large in this country? What about the rest of the year? And for youth who exist at other possible intersections of identity (LGBTQ+ youth, disabled youth, etc.), how do those intersections factor in? Was the illustrious summer job, now fading into obscurity, always an activity afforded to middle- and upper-class white kids?


“It took me forever to get that job.”


The story for two local teens of color and their present-day job search is strikingly different from that of the young people we talked to who got their first jobs six-plus years ago. Twinny Alipio and her friend, who wishes to go by “Bautista” for this article, are both 18 and come from Filipino families. They both grew up in the South End and say finding their first jobs was no easy task.

Alipio initially sought work while in high school. (She graduated in June.) She tried babysitting but was disappointed in the pay and found herself wondering, “Don’t other people make more money doing this?” She speculates that she was underpaid because clients took advantage of her youth.

Alipio said she has leadership and communication skills and specifically didn’t apply for retail jobs because they “wouldn’t go anywhere.”

For the past year, Alipio has worked as a server at a retirement community—Skyline First Hill. She works the dinner shift from 4:30–9:30 PM, which, she said, “is the perfect thing for school.” Alipio may be content at Skyline now, but, she says, “It took me forever to get that job.” She described the application process as “extensive” and says she applied about a year before she got the job. When she was hired, she said, it was because her sister-in-law works there and talked to the manager.

Bautista and Alipio described their early job searches, explaining that most employers remained unresponsive. Alipio applied to places like Starbucks and McDonald’s. Bautista applied for an internship with Goodwill Youth Programming, but didn’t make the cut. The program prioritizes the most at-risk youth, she and Alipio noted, and Bautista didn’t qualify. Bautista also applied to AMC theaters.

So many jobs, from their perspective, are out of reach for one reason or another. Bautista did receive a call back from QFC, but it was a full month after she had applied. By then, she’d decided to enlist in the Marines, so she didn’t bother to return their call.

In contrast, Dova Castenaeda-Zilly, another 18-year-old, born and raised in a white family (with some Latin roots) on Beacon Hill, said that finding her first jobs was easy. She was 16 and living at home, and through neighborhood and family connections, she reached out to local small businesses and let them know she wanted work experience and was interested in learning. She quickly got a job busing tables at Oak, a restaurant and bar near Beacon Hill’s Link light rail station.

Ryan Palestri, manager at a Ross store in Rainier Valley, had only been working there a month in early July. He says he doesn’t get a lot of teenage applicants, but because of  a company policy, he can only hire people who are older than 18. However, he says, it would not be hard to get an entry-level cashier position there, even with no experience.

A mile north on Rainier Avenue South, Bartell Drugs store manager Jerry McCullum also said he doesn’t see many youth applicants at his store. He’s managed this location for eight years and previously worked at a location on Capitol Hill. When asked if he was more likely to hire someone with more experience than, say, a kid looking for their first job, he gave a flat “No.” Are fewer youth applying for jobs in recent years? “I think so, yeah, for my location,” he said. He added that when he managed the store on Capitol Hill near Seattle University, just half a mile from Seattle Central College, he saw  more applications from young people, especially college students. (The timing would indicate that this would have been during the Great Recession.)

Palestri’s and McCullum’s experiences are in line with the Pew study, indicating that fewer youth are seeking retail jobs. But the jury is still out on how much the downward trend of youth applicants for retail stores has to do with location, what role the Great Recession may have played, and what other factors aren’t being taken into account.  


Youth of color are employed at lower rates than white youth, period.


Today, youth face challenges they didn’t in the past—longer school years (shorter summers), competition with schedule-flexible, financially-motivated adults with more experience who are applying for and even being recruited for jobs that were once synonymous with youth. But youth of color are employed at even lower rates than white youth, period. In all seasons. This disparity in early-job-placement affects long-term career stability. Marginalized youth populations compete not only with more affluent white youth, as was always the case, but now with adults as well. So it stands to reason that it’s more challenging than ever for youth who want to work, especially youth of color and those among various vulnerable populations, to do so.

The Pew study is one of many that points out the inequity in unemployment among youth of color, specifically. Like their adult counterparts, youth of color face higher rates of unemployment than their white peers. According to a 2001 paper by Rosella M. Gardecki, Research Specialist at Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research (available on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website), researchers have been noting the disparities in unemployment rates among black and Hispanic workers and their white counterparts since the late 1960s, and younger workers are typically most affected by the disparity. Gardecki writes, “white workers have historically held jobs at a higher rate than black workers; for young workers, this gap widened in the 1960s and the 1970s when the employment rate of black teens decreased further. Recent studies show that this early joblessness has an impact on later employment probabilities and wage outcomes.”

The Brookings Institute reports a similar finding, stating that, “early work experiences (part-time and in the summer) can provide valuable opportunities for teens to learn new skills, gain experience, expand their networks, and develop positive relationships with adults.”

While other ethnic groups’ employment rates improve as people age, among Black people, in particular, that’s not the case. The Brookings Institute reports that approximately 3 million people aged 16 to 24 in the U.S. were “disconnected”—meaning not enrolled in school (high school or college) and not employed (as of May 2016). Those disconnected are disproportionately people of color.

“In some places,” they report, “young blacks and Latinos are up to 3-to-6 times more likely to be disconnected than young whites,” though they point out that the majority of those disconnected are on the latter end of the age spectrum, in the 20 to 24 age range.  

Here in Seattle, Parks and Recreation Communications Manager Rachel Schulkin says, “there are still more youth looking for opportunities than [there are] availabilities.” In regards to demographic trends among youth applicants Schulkin says Parks and Recreation serves “a diverse population” and “does its best” to serve youth challenged by barriers, including “youth involved with the justice system, youth with special needs, youth who are homeless, and everyone in between.”

So, youth among vulnerable populations here in Seattle who want to work and desire job skills and opportunities can’t get their foot in the door to local resources to help them take the further step of getting a job. Contrast that with this Business Insider article which states that “While teens now spend more of their time doing meaningful volunteer work, catching up on their reading, or starting businesses, there are legitimate benefits to working menial summer jobs.” It’s as though huge swaths of the country believe the hype that young people today are either “too busy” to work or otherwise don’t want to get jobs. But perhaps there’s more to the challenges our marginalized youth face than we’re willing to admit.

One barrier youth—especially youth of color—face upon attempting to enter the workforce is criminal history. Youth of color are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, and the disparity has been growing recently. LGBTQ+ youth (especially LGBTQ+ youth of color) often face the additional hurdle of homelessness and, according to Bianca Wilson of the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA Law, between 6 and 11 percent of youth and young adults nationwide identify as LGBTQ+.

Studies have shown that at least 20 percent of LGBTQ+ youth leave home due to either their family’s discomfort with or reaction to their sexual orientation or in order to avoid same. Other factors, such as abuse, addiction, and aging out of or otherwise losing support systems also contribute to the fact that 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ (contrasted with 5–10 percent of youth in general), writes Michelle Page, author of the study “Forgotten Youth: Homeless LGBT Youth of Color and the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act.” And without a home, it can be awfully hard to find someone who’ll give you a job.

YES!” (Youth Engaged in Service), a Parks and Recreation-sponsored job readiness and leadership development program for youth aged 13–19, offers (mostly summer) job opportunities and more. The YES! Program helps youth prepare for the workforce while giving them an avenue to earn Service Learning hours (the 60 required to graduate) as well as a small stipend. Another SPR program, LEEF, teaches environmental leadership and is aimed at Seattle young people ages 17–21. The specifically address youth of color, those who identify as “LGBTQ,” and those from low-income households. The latter “was created to address the employment and access gap” for these youth.

For some local young people, it’s never been about a “summer job.” And perhaps that’s evidence to support the notion that the culture around youth employment has changed drastically since its prominence in the mid-20th-century. Or perhaps the Bureau of Labor Statistics is missing out on a lot of nuance (and large portions of our nation’s youth) when they run the surveys from which they map their statistics.


“I’m basically on my own,” she said. She didn’t want to be a burden on her mom.


When asked why she sought employment in the first place, Twinny Alipio’s reasons were vague: she just wanted to “rumble up some cash,” as she put it. “I put a lot of my money in savings for a rainy day.” But Alipio doesn’t live at home, she’s got bills to pay.
“I’m basically on my own,” she said. She didn’t want to be a burden on her mom. “She’s already working so hard.

Castaneda-Zilly says she wanted a job so she could save for a gap year before college and because, “I wanted more freedom and independence.” Since finding that first job, she’s had three additional jobs and said, “I’m working for three different companies, in the same position[s], this summer.”

Isabel and Alipio explained that many Filipino parents want their children to pursue traditional careers like medicine, law, etc. They support their kids, they said, but that support comes in the form of vocal encouragement.

“Be smart. Go get scholarships,” Alipio smiled as she paraphrased her parents.

There’s a common theme of independence among these local youth, and perhaps there’s a cultural element at play.

“People of Color are always like this … I make my own money,” Alipio said. She says she told her mom, basically, “You take care of yourself. I’ll figure it out.” Bautista is of the same mindset. She said her parents would have paid for college, but that’s not what she wanted. She wanted to make it her own way. She said her boyfriend, Perez, who is 19 and of Mexican heritage, lives on his own, works, and attends college at Seattle Central, which he pays for himself.

Again, it’s a small data pool, but it’s easy to note the differences in the experiences of the two Filipino youth we talked to and a white peer. For Alipio and Bautista, it took “ages” to find work, or they didn’t find it at all. For Castaneda-Zilly, it was “easy.” Also it is noteworthy that none of the young job-seekers we talked to cited the summer season specifically as the time when they sought their first jobs. Most were going to school while looking for work to do concurrently.

These young people have aspirations far beyond their past or current places of employment. Carlos Nieto is an up-and-coming slam poet. Twinny Alipio starts school at the University of Washington this fall. She will get assistance in the form of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to pay for her first year, but she’s already trying to figure out how to pay for school beyond that, considering joining the National Guard which offers tuition assistance.

Alipio is a self-proclaimed “people person,” and less than five minutes with her will have you proclaiming it as well. Though she comes across as unsure about her choice of college major, “What am I gonna do with a Humanities degree?” she mused.

“At my age, I don’t know how to understand success,” Alipio says. “What does that look like?”

Featured Image: Twinny Alipio (Photo: Diana Nguyen)