Could High Teen Joblessness Trigger an Arab Spring (or Summer) in America?

BY Paul Solman  July 29, 2013 at 1:12 PM EDT

By Diane Lincoln Estes

The number of jobs available to 16- to 19-year-olds has decreased to almost half of those available in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of John Konstantaras/The Chicago News Cooperative.

Neil Sullivan’s been tackling joblessness for years as head of the Boston Private Industry Council. We sat down with Sullivan, once a policy adviser to former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, for Monday’s story on teen employment. Sullivan shared a sobering assessment of today’s teen job market. In Boston, and nationwide, he told us, there’s been a relentless decline in 16- to 19-year-old employment in the last several years. In this excerpt from our interview, Sullivan discusses the reasons for the slide and why we should be concerned about it.

Paul Solman: From from your point of view, how dramatic a change has there been in youth unemployment — and you’ve been looking at this stuff for what, 30 some-odd years?

Neil Sullivan: About 30 years I’ve been conscious of youth employment in the city, really focused on it for the last 25 or so. There’s barely half as many jobs for 16- to 19 year-olds in this country as there were in the late 1990s. It’s a seismic shift in the labor market. It’s not correcting itself. It’s not cyclical; 16- to 19-year-olds are not recovering. They didn’t recover from the mini-recession of 2001, and their employment rates have descended dramatically since the Great Recession of 2008 and it’s a continuous decline.

So this is a change in America that’s affecting our young people, and eventually affects our work force, (which) is so big that people are not seeing it. It’s the underpinnings of our work here in Boston. Through the mayor’s summer jobs campaign, we were able to recruit over 5,000 private sector jobs for urban teenagers in the year 2000. This year, with extraordinary effort and a big focus by the mayor on recruiting private sector employers, we’ll do about 3,000 (jobs).

Paul Solman: Really? That’s it?

Neil Sullivan: That’s it, and it’s really the loss of the jobs that anyone over 25 remembers. You know something’s changed in this country: If you’re over 25 you remember your summer job and the summer jobs your friends have. If you’re under 25 that world doesn’t exist for you.

Paul Solman: So why the overall decline?

Neil Sullivan: It’s the collapse of the jobs we all knew as teenagers. The retail market, labor market, the fast food market, the ice cream stand market, the delivery of newspapers — all the jobs that were part of America’s youth employment market have been reduced to half of what they were.

Paul Solman: Well, not fast food.

Neil Sullivan: Oh certainly! In this labor market you have college students pressing down into a labor market that used to be for high school grads. You have high school grads pressing down into a labor market that used to be for teenagers and dropouts. In that push down effect, teenagers are out of the equation and drop-outs have hell to pay economically going forward. So that’s the American economy and that’s why youth employment, the employment of 16- to 19- year-olds, has fallen off the table and quite frankly out of the conversation. I mean, this is something political leaders, beyond our mayor and those who pay attention to it, need to elevate.

Paul Solman: But they don’t talk about it at all?

Neil Sullivan: It’s too big to swallow. The public response, as noble as it was in the stimulus package, was minimal compared to the crisis that had evolved, okay? Two hundred and fifty thousand jobs rolled out across the country with public funds through the federal stimulus for 16- to 19-year-olds. In that same context, the labor market for 16- to 19-year-olds had shed 2 to 3 million jobs. It’s like (Mount St. Helens); you’re blowing off the top of the mountain. You know, suddenly the geography of the labor market changed and 16- to 19-year-olds fell out of the equation.

Paul Solman: What’s going to happen if youth unemployment numbers stay up in the stratosphere?

Neil Sullivan: There are parts of the world, the Middle East is the most obvious, where youth unemployment is, well, there is virtually no youth employment at all. Youth unemployment is the underlying chaos of the Middle East. Young men do not get employed. If you looked at youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and compared them to what’s happened in America, even in its youth employment descent, we actually look favorable and these are levels of chaos (we’re experiencing).

Then again, we’re as strong as our workforce is productive, particularly here in New England. Our natural resources are our population and our workforce, and it’s not just about reading and writing and mathematics in terms of being a productive employee, a professional, a manager; it’s about a set of skills that we learn experientially. We learn them in the work place. So if half as many teenagers in America are getting those experiences, it’s going to have a profound impact on the workforce that’s transitioning to adulthood.

Paul Solman: What impact? I mean, are we going to have an Arab Spring here or something?

Neil Sullivan: You’ll have employers talking about not being able to find people to do the work … and we just won’t look favorable. I mean, we’re competing with Europe, which has a completely different attitude about youth employment. It is fully integrated in the education system in most of the European countries. You know, there is no youth unemployment in Switzerland. It’s a more diverse nation than people realize right now. It’s public policy that all young people will get paid employment as part of their coming up, and a certain percentage of the population will have employment at the core of their education right through post-secondary. And, you know, Denmark does it, Germany does it, I mean there’s a whole different attitude in Europe toward youth employment. It’s part of the education system. We’re gonna make that jump soon. We almost made it in the ’90s and then we lost our way. We’re going to get back to integrating teen employment, youth employment, as part of the American education experience or we’re going to be less productive than our economic competitors.

This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.