Five days a week Emma Wender wakes up at 5:45 a.m. After only a few hours of sleep she’s in her parent’s car, the sun peaking over the Manhattan Bridge to the east.
Wender, 18, begins her day ice skating at Sky Rink in Chelsea Piers. About an hour of jumps and twirls later, Wender is off to her other job—being a student at the Chapin School, a prestigious high school on the Upper East Side. To call her high school a job is not an exaggeration: homework alone often eats up about four hours each day.
“I haven’t had that much time to go out with friends until my senior year,” said the Upper West Side resident. “I definitely don’t have time for a job. Most people in my high school don’t have a job though.”
A combination of increased competition, weak economic growth after the recession and older workers reentering the workforce from retirement are all contributing to a decline in teenagers in the workforce. In the late 90s, more than half of American teenagers worked. But by 2015, only 34% of American teenagers had a job. As evidence of a widening income disparity emerges, more and more teenagers are not working during high school—but for different reasons. Some are choosing not to work, while others simply can’t find job.
“A college degree is no longer sufficient for a comfortable or secure career,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist at Associated General Contractors of America in Arlington, Virginia. “When applying to college it’s no longer enough to have straight A’s or a 1600 SAT score. Now you’ve had to have gone out and saved a piece of the world or been an orchestra-level violinist.”
At the Sky Rink in Manhattan’s Chelsea, the competitive tension can be felt—even on ice.
“These are very driven students,” said Marni Halasa, Wender’s coach. “The kids are always under pressure. Many of them are trying to get a leg up on competition by building their resumes. Skating differentiates them.”
None of the 10 teenaged girls that Halasa coaches, between ages 14 and 18, work. Still, that doesn’t mean these young ladies aren’t under intense pressure to succeed.
“In the last five years I’ve noticed there is a lot more stress and anxiety than I’ve ever seen before,” said Halasa, who has been coaching for 25 years. “There is a constant emphasis on competition, about reaching these outrageously high standards.”
Parents who do successfully get their children into the best schools and clubs will be rewarded, according to Mike Englund, senior economist at Action Economics in Boulder, Colorado.
“Only 5% to 10% of the population will be knowledge workers, or workers with highly sophisticated levels of education to do their jobs,” Englund said. “The rest may be highly educated, but they’re not using skills they learned in school.”
All the more reason why teenagers like Wender are stressed out.
“There is definitely an atmosphere of who has the best grades is winning and who has the least sleep is the best,” said Wender, who competes on the Sky Rink All Stars, a figure skating ensemble in New York City that has won national medals.
But while increased competition is forcing some teens out of the labor market, other teenagers aren’t working because of a lack of job opportunities. Often times, it’s the same families with teenagers who can’t find work that need it most.
In Whatcom County, just below the Canadian border in Washington State, jobs are scarce. Tiffany Hudson co-owns Ten Fold Farm in Bellingham, Washington. All three of her teenage children have worked there at one point. Most recently, her 17-year-old daughter Kaylie was offered her first job off the farm at Bed Bath & Beyond. But the offer was dropped when Kaylie couldn’t produce a background check—something she won’t be eligible for until she turns 18.
“Everybody out here wants to work,” Hudson said. “But there are not many jobs for teenagers. Most employers want extreme flexibility. Even fast food restaurants are taking adults who want work—any work.”
The image of teenagers dominating drive thrus and shopping malls to make some extra cash is fading. As the population ages and more people enter or re-enter the work force there is increased competition for low-paying jobs.
“Go to a grocery store today and instead of a 17-year-old boy or girl in high school, it’s a guy in his 60s bagging your groceries,” said Paul Harrington, an economist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Employers are willing to make the tradeoff for someone who may be older, but maybe not as fast or strong because they’re reliable. It’s Friday night and they don’t have to worry about them blowing off work for a party. We’re also seeing it in the leisure and hospitality industries, industries that were traditionally for teens.”
This domino effect throughout the economy is best illustrated when college graduates, many who are struggling to find jobs in their fields, take low-paying jobs that were once filled by teens.
“If you can hire someone with more experience and you don’t have to pay them anymore, then employers are certainly going to do that,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.
What this means for teenagers in general as they join the labor force is uncertain. Harrington reasons that teenagers without work experience as they enter the job market are at a huge disadvantage.
“Working as a teenager has big economic payoffs,” he said. “Early work experience is a form of human capital development. The theory is that not only are kids working, and earning a small sum, but they are learning how to be an adult at work. When firms are screening, they’re screening for soft skills. If you don’t have these then your knowledge doesn’t matter.”
But back in the Big Apple, Wender said not having a job hasn’t been a disadvantage.
“Not in New York City,” she said. “There are so many opportunities here to talk to adults and learn how to present myself professionally.”
And skating, Wender said, was definitely an asset when applying for college.
“Colleges what to see that you’re dedicated to something,” said Wender, who has thought about being an ice skating coach herself one day—after college.
For now, she is just excited about starting college at Ohio’s Kenyon College this fall, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
“It’s really hard here in New York City with all the competition around academics,” Wender said. “I wanted someplace quiet with a less competitive atmosphere.”