Do Summer Jobs for Teens Prove Jobless Adults Aren't Really Trying?

It's summertime, which means teenagers can be found earning money for car payments and Xboxes with temporary jobs that will end once school begins. Even in this recession, when unemployment remains near double-digits, many teens are still managing to find summer jobs. This must prove that any adults still unemployed must just refuse take available jobs, right? After all, if a teen can get a job, then certainly an adult with more work experience should qualify for it. That's essentially what University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan argues in his Economix blog post today.

Mulligan presents the following chart, which shows the ratio of teenagers workers to that for young adults, aged 20-24:

summer employment mulligan.jpg

Then, Mulligan says:

All five of the years show a teenage employment spike in July. In fact, the July 2009 and July 2010 spikes are about the same size -- 15 to 17 percent (relative to the previous May) -- as the 18 percent average of the previous three years.

Mulligan thinks this shows that, since teenage employment increased during the summers of 2009 and 2010, getting a job was a matter of willingness to work, not job availability. Thus, the government's efforts to help the unemployed have allowed jobless Americans to be pickier. So the current high unemployment rate is made worse due to people's comfort with having no job.

There's definitely some truth in Mulligan's argument. It's simple logic that people can be pickier when they're able to collect unemployment benefits. But as this chart shows there are also clearly fewer jobs available than there are potential applicants:

job openings vs jobless 2010-05.PNG

If every unemployed American immediately decided to take any job he or she could get, and there is an applicant perfectly qualified for each of these positions, then that would still leave more than 11 million unemployed. Within the 14.6 million jobless in July, 6.6 million have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. That's twice as many as total openings. The question then is whether political policy can stomach the idea of ending jobless benefits in order to fill those jobs openings more quickly. Even if you ended benefits at 27 weeks, you would have 3.2 million Americans with no source of income and no job openings.

Moreover, is it really fair to characterize teenager summer jobs as viable employment that 20-somethings are ignoring? These are largely temporary jobs like summer camp counseling, being the lifeguard at a pool, and working for a relative's company (who probably wouldn't have hired someone otherwise). That's why seasonal employment is still increasing in the summer. It's not that summer is suddenly a time when employers feel like they need more workers due to a sudden desire to expand that dissipates when the leaves begin to fall, but because odd niche employment temporarily presents itself, tailored to school-age teens.

So while Mulligan is right that extending unemployment benefits allows jobless Americans to be pickier, the fact that teenagers can still get summer jobs isn't a compelling argument that the long-term unemployment problem the U.S. currently faces is largely exaggerated. Might there be better ways to combat unemployment than those the government has taken thus far? Probably, but that's different from saying there's no problem or that it isn't so serious.