Why Johnny Can’t/Doesn’t Work

Posted: May 21, 2014 12:01 AM
Why Johnny Can’t/Doesn’t Work

Memorial Day marks the unofficial end-point of spring wherein Tennyson told us “a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” Now it’s time for that same young man, and the young female subject of his prurient interests, to fancy looking for summer employment. This 90 day trading of textbooks for shovels has long been a cornerstone of the American capitalistic experience. Unfortunately, like so many other deemed-arcane traditions, the student’s summer job has lost its shine.

According to the U.S. Department of labor, youth employment rates for summer jobs have increased since the bottom of the recession in 2009 and 2010 but that news is good only when viewed against the trough. In historical context, fewer young people as a percentage are working summer jobs than at any time since the late 1940’s. Depending upon the source of the forecast, the projections for youth employment this summer range from bleak to stagnant. So what’s going on? Are young people simply decadent, dependent and distracted?

Wouldn’t grownups like to think so?

The truth is that there are two fairly discernable reasons for a lack of youth participation in the labor force. One factor is driven by policy and the other is a product of culture.

A summer job is the result of a calculus on the part of a business owner/manager. If a company has a need for additional work to be performed, or for work to be performed and its “fruits” stored for use over the next several months, it calculates the cost of that work. If the cost of having that work done is affordable, then the student gets the job. If either a sophisticated algorithm or a simple heuristic determines the cost of hiring is simply too high then the job isn’t offered. In an economy where businesses are being taxed and regulated straight from the pages of Atlas Shrugged, The math surrounding offering summer employment is not adding up.

Interesting, then, that the Democrat’s solution to the employment crisis is to increase the minimum wage. Guided by the playbook of their economic oracle, Franklin Roosevelt, they feel as though the way to cure a problem is to tax it. Isn’t it obvious that the reason employers aren’t hiring more young people is that it just doesn’t cost them enough? If a liberal were a 12-step sponsor their first recommended step on the road to their sponsee’s sobriety would be a good stiff drink. Of course, anyone who can count from 1-10 while getting the numbers in the right order knows that the Democrat’s current push to raise the minimum wage doesn’t really have anything to do with helping young inexperienced workers.

The far more distressing aspect of declining youth participation in the employment market is the cultural one. Much of American history has seen the celebration of work. For generations children were taught that work was something that gave them a meaningful role in society and that would allow them to develop the self- esteem that can only be derived from expended effort on the path to achievement. That is not the message coming from society and parents today. Walmart provides low to modest wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and they are vilified as exploitative. Mom or dad loses their job and the government provides them with enough benefits and leisure time to seduce them out of the workforce. Movies portray bosses as “Moron-taurs”, part idiot, part monster and depict the worker who says “stuff it” as the aspirational hero.

Adults like to say that young people are simply lazy and too content to play video games and text friends all day. Question, parents: Who bought junior the Xbox and iPhone? The same adults who criticize youth for their slothfulness are the ones who take credit for teaching Johnny how to swing after his little league home run. If you taught him to hit then you taught him to sit! Society can’t just cherry-pick when waxing poetic on their influencing of youth.

Years ago, radio commentator Paul Harvey said when covering a teacher’s strike “Teachers on a picket line should remember they are still teaching.” Young people learn from example. Society, heal thyself.