It’s not like the jobs aren’t there. The ice cream still needs scooping. A Tilt-a-Whirl doesn’t run itself. And that floppy, weirdly heavy rubber frog that somersaults toward the rotating lily pads? Hit or miss, someone’s got to bring it back to the catapult for the next lucky player. The work of an American summer remains, sticky and sweet as cotton candy, which doesn’t sell itself either.
But when Jenkinson’s Boardwalk went looking for seasonal employees last year, the response was not at all what the company expected. To fill some 1,200 summer vacancies, an Easter-time job fair drew just 400 people.
Applications did bounce up this year, but not nearly enough to reverse a grave trend that summer employers have noticed well beyond the Jersey Shore.
“It is getting harder to find students that will work,” says Toby Wolf, director of marketing at the boardwalk. “Each year it’s getting harder and harder. None of us has been able to pinpoint why. Is it a change in society as a whole?”
This is a question to chew over on the long road trip from Glacier National Park–where concessions could be staffed by Bulgarians on work-study visas–to Maine, which each summer struggles to fill the lifeguard chairs above its beaches. The same story holds at the water attractions at Wisconsin Dells and on Cedar Point’s roller coasters in Sandusky, Ohio. As a nation, we have lately endured the demise of comity and the fracture of factual truth. Are we now witnessing the slow death of the summer job?
The numbers are not encouraging. Forty years ago, nearly 60% of U.S. teenagers were working or looking for work during the peak summer months. Last year, just 35% were. Note the element of declaration: what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tabulates are reports of actually desiring work during the months when most high schools and colleges are off. It is a statement of intent. Plotted on a chart, the decline is unmistakable and, since the turn of the new century, precipitous–plummeting 15 points in 15 years, to where we are now: only about every third youth working or looking for work this summer.