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So much for lazy teenagers. Unemployment remains near 68-year lows for teens as a tight labor market draws in a younger crowd.

May 9, 2022, 8:32 PM UTC

A sign posted outside of a Dollar Tree in Bremen, Indiana, last month says a lot about the state of generational conflict in the country.

“NOW HIRING! *Baby Boomers ONLY, thanks!…Don’t hire Gen Z’s. They don’t know what work actually means,” the sign read.

The sentiment—that younger generations are lazy and would rather stay at home—seems to be widely shared among older Americans. There’s only one problem: The data doesn’t quite back it up. It turns out the so-called “lazy” and “entitled” Gen-Z sure does love to work. 

The unemployment rate for teenagers aged 16 to 19 fell to just 10.2% in April, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data released on Friday. That’s just short of the 9.6% rate seen in May of last year, which itself was a 68-year low. And if you don’t count last year’s figure, April’s teen unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since December 1957.

When baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, were the same age (between 1962 and 1980), teenage unemployment averaged 15.8%, BLS data shows.

That means by at least one metric, Gen Z is working a lot harder than boomers were during their teen years. 

Of course, unemployment rates don’t tell the whole story. The labor force participation rate among 16-to-19-year-olds is drastically different now than it was when boomers were still in high school.

In April, 36.6% of 16-to-19-year-olds participated in the workforce, Federal Reserve data shows. That’s a big increase from the 34.7% average seen between 2010 and 2020, but it’s nowhere near the 51.2% average from between 1962 and 1980, when boomers were teenagers.

So while Gen Z’s teens may be outworking millennials, boomers still have teenage employment bragging rights.

Economists say increased school enrollment, automation of low-skill jobs, and increased immigration are all factors that hold teenagers back from securing jobs like their predecessors once did.

But while Gen Z isn’t participating in the workforce at the same rate that boomers were able to, they are making strides to find jobs this summer—and they’re working for a better work/life balance as they do so. 

A tight labor market

What’s driving the teenage hiring spree? Economists say the tight labor market is a key factor drawing in more teenage workers than ever before.

Despite surging inflation and consistent predictions of impending economic doom, the U.S. economy added 428,000 jobs in April, pushing the unemployment rate down to just 3.6%.

At the same time, wages are up 5.5% from a year ago, employers posted a record 11.5 million jobs in March, and workers continue to leave or switch jobs, with 4.5 million quits. 

Alicia Sasser Modestino, a labor economist and professor at Northeastern who studies youth in the workforce, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that as adult workers leave low-wage jobs for greener pastures amid record job openings, teens are taking over.

“Adult workers said, ‘I no longer want this crazy low-wage service job that has a ludicrous schedule, few benefits, and rude customers,’” Modestino said. So “employers suddenly turned to youth.”

Rising wages for low-skill workers may also be pulling teens into the workforce. 

Median hourly wages for workers aged 16 to 24 increased 11.8% year-over-year in March, Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank data shows, far outpacing overall wage gains. 

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