Perspective: Get your kids a summer job, not a summer camp

The forces pulling middle-class kids away from paid summer work are high. And college is mostly to blame

Sticker shock. That’s what I remember feeling upon learning the price of summer camp when my oldest was 5. It was a small comfort, but I told myself that by the time she was 12 she would be able to entertain herself over the summer — and maybe even babysit her younger siblings — and by the time she was 14, she would start earning some of it back with summer jobs. Because, well, that’s what I did.

The summer before I entered high school I got a job answering phones at my neighbor’s auto glass shop. And I made several copies of the company’s rolodex. I mean an actual rolodex, with individual cards you had to type … on a typewriter. My daughter, at the same age, is headed to a full summer of sleepover camp. Far from becoming less expensive, each successive summer brings a bigger bill. And as school gets out, it looks like just about all her friends are spending money in the coming months, too, not earning it. 

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But maybe the trend is starting to shift for the better. Teen unemployment rates are hitting record lows this summer. With many of their adult peers deciding to hang out at home, enjoying their COVID-19 benefits, teens are taking advantage of desperate employers, higher wages and even signing bonuses. Our local shopping center has stores advertising jobs for kids as young as 14. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a third of 16- to 19-year-olds are working, the highest rate since 2008.

I started to notice a little more industriousness during lockdown here in New York last summer. With school remote and sports teams and camps canceled, many neighborhood kids started offering their own small-scale “pod camps.” For a few bucks an hour they would come over and teach children how to play basketball or soccer, or do art projects with toddlers on the lawn. And it was not just girls offering to help. Teenage boys, too, acted as pied piper to troops of 7-year-olds, squirting each other with water guns. They put up notices on social media, dropped flyers into mailboxes and posted signs on telephone poles. Zooming for months on end did a lot for the young person’s entrepreneurial spirit, apparently.

Now that things are mostly back to normal, the forces pulling middle-class kids away from paid summer work are high. And college is mostly to blame.

Consider how things have changed. Today, unpaid internships look better on college resumes. But years ago, my own father actually managed to put a significant dent in his college tuition by working as a waiter in the Catskills all summer. Today, even a full summer of lifeguarding or busing tables is unlikely to do more than cover a kid’s incidental expenses at a four-year school. So why bother?

Well, for one, and forgive my hypocrisy, there are valuable lessons to be learned. Some are about the feeling of independence that comes from earning a paycheck — and seeing how much the government takes away. Some are about humility. Handling other people’s money, other people’s food and other people’s children often means being at the receiving end of rudeness and anger. I’m not condoning such behavior, but there are times in life when remembering that the customer is always right will end up saving you a lot of heartache. 

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Other lessons include: Stay busy or the boss will wonder whether she really needs you. One of my first and only interns spent the summer completing every assignment as quickly as possible and then reading “Harry Potter” the rest of the day. One wonders whether a summer working at a busy restaurant might have changed that.

But there are larger sociological reasons to want the summer job to make a comeback. Writing in 2007 in The Wall Street Journal, Kay Hymowitz noted: The summer job “was also inherently democratic. For eight hours a day, at any rate, working-class and middle-class kids were in the same boat. They all had to learn that life wasn’t always entertaining. They had to wait tables for people who could be less than polite — people who sometimes reminded them of themselves. With many of them in four-year colleges (where close to 75% of their classmates come from homes at the top quarter of the income scale), without a draft and now without menial jobs, privileged kids almost never meet up with their less well-off peers.”

Summer jobs are a way to pop the bubble our kids are living in … or at least expose them to some more of the outside world. All of which is to say, it may be time to consider other options for next summer.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.