Hardly Working

COMMENTARY Jobs and Labor

Hardly Working

May 31, 2014 3 min read
Stephen Moore

Distinguished Fellow in Economics

Stephen Moore is a Distinguished Fellow in Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

Everyone knows that under Barack Obama, fewer Americans are working or even getting off the couch to look for work. This is the story of the disappearing American worker. The percentage of Americans over the age of 16 who are in the labor force has fallen to its lowest level since the late 1970s. That was before the huge influx of women into the workforce over the past three decades.

Obama apologists have tried to blame this worker shortage on the retirement of the baby-boom generation. There’s a morsel of truth in that: There are seven million more Americans above the age of 65 today than there were in 2009.

Amazingly, though, the labor-force-participation rate of these senior citizens has actually increased since 2009. The over-65 crowd is more likely to be working today — in part because they are healthier than ever. But this means that almost all of the decline in workforce participation has been among younger workers. That’s not good.

The group with the biggest fall in work has been those in their fifties. I suspect that those who lost their jobs during the recession and were out of work for two or three years just threw in the towel and stopped looking for a new job. That’s a big hit to our national income and to family incomes, because workers usually hit their earnings high-water mark between 45 and 60.

Much more disturbing is the big dip in workforce participation of those between 16 and 25. Their participation rate has declined by 5.3 percent for 16- to 19-year-olds and by 3.0 percent for 20- to 24-year olds. And we want Americans to be working in their teens and early twenties. Studies show consistently that those who start working at a job at a young age have higher earnings later in life. For example, one study found that those who work as teenagers have earnings about 10 percent higher at age 27 than those who did not work.

So why are the young not working? One reason is the minimum wage. In a supreme act of stupidity, starting in 2007, the federal minimum wage was raised three times during one of the worst job recessions since the Great Depression. The teen-unemployment rate skyrocketed; for black males it exceeded 40 percent. The teen-unemployment rate still remains very high, so it would be hard to imagine a worse time to raise the minimum wage again.

But a bigger problem is cultural. There is an attitude these days that when young people work, it is a bad thing — because it pulls them away from school and studying. I can say as a parent that a job is more likely to pull the little darlings away from texting and computer games.

A few years ago, legislators in Maine tried to relax some of the work rules against teen employment, such as hours worked, the age at which they could start working, and how late they could work at night. These were reasonable new rules, but the Left went into hysterics and acted as if the Republicans were trying to repeal all child-labor laws.

Because of these attitudes, we now have kids in their twenties who have never worked a full day’s work in their life. And the longer they stay in school, the more they delay actually contributing to society by working. One of the biggest increases in food-stamp participation has been by college students. I would go in the opposite direction. If a 21-year-old isn’t smart enough to get a job to feed himself, he probably doesn’t belong in college.

One negative aspect of the student-loan programs is that the loans substitute for work. I recently wrote about the College of the Ozarks, where kids work 15 hours a week to cover their tuition. They come out of college work-tested and employable.

We do no favors to the young by teaching them that we are such a rich and advanced society that they shouldn’t have to work. We are actually teaching them to be idle and dependent. Show me someone who is successful in life and I will show you someone who entered the workforce at a young age. Some of the most impressive people I’ve met grew up on farms or worked for the family business (think Asians) and started working every day at 12, 10, or even 8 years old.

It might be that the labor-force-participation rate is falling among the young because they’ve never been expected to work. No one has told them they should. So this is a plea to parents: If you really want to help your kids succeed in life, instead of driving them to soccer or band practice this summer, tell them to get a job — any job. Menial labor is actually a good thing. Don’t worry if the job pays minimum wage, because the first job in life is about learning the dignity of work and taking the first step toward being responsible and independent and carrying your own weight.

 - Stephen Moore is chief economist at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in the National Review Online