In recent years, Americans have grown quite wary about the work readiness of both high school and college graduates. Just 5% of U.S. adults say high school grads are very prepared for success in the workplace and 13% say the same about college graduates. There are several areas for improvement to point to within schools and colleges, but here’s one real simple explanation for why today’s students aren’t ready for work: they are the least working generation in U.S. history.
As recent studies by Pew Research have pointed out, today’s young adults (between the ages of 15-21) are much less likely to have had a paid summer job or to have been employed in the last year compared to every previous generation for which data exists. In 1948 and 1978, 57% and 58% of 16-19 year-olds had a paid summer job. By 2017, only 35% reported having a summer job. The percentage of 15-17 year-olds who reported working in any fashion in the prior year has dropped from 48% in 1968 to a mere 19% in 2018. And the percentage of 18-21 year-olds reporting working in the prior year has dropped from 80% in 1968 to 58% in 2018.
These data represent a stunning collapse in the work experience of young adults in America. It’s really no surprise that one of the outcomes of this collapse might be a sense that high school and college graduates aren’t well prepared for the workplace. In fact, it would be more surprising if we felt they were prepared – as opposed to being surprised they’re not. On top of the fact that work experience among young adults has declined dramatically, very little of their typical high school or college studies prepares students well for the workplace.
The factors of college that are linked to success in the workplace, unfortunately, happen for too few graduates. And although there are promising increases in practices such as project-based learning (which gets closer to mimicking real work experiences) in high schools, there’s still a very long way to go. Only a third of college graduates had an internship during college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom. But those who did were twice as likely as those who didn’t to have a good job waiting for them upon graduation. With such a profound relationship, it’s fair to wonder why an internship or co-op isn’t a required component for graduation.
It might be easy to point much of the blame on colleges for not making internships a bigger part of students’ experiences, but employers share equal burden and blame here. After all, with the small exception of work study opportunities, colleges and universities don’t have jobs and internships…employers do! We’re going to need the equivalent of a moon shot plan for stimulating a new ecosystem of employer-to-university partnerships around internships and co-op experiences. This is a place where government intervention (in the form of new incentives for employers to dramatically boost internships) would be welcome.
Internships aside for a moment, we’d be wise to carefully examine why today’s young adults are so much less likely to be working than previous generations. This is something that the research has largely missed – other than to offer wide-ranging hypotheses including fewer low-skill, entry-level jobs available, teens doing more unpaid community service for graduation requirements and college applications, and more young adults enrolled in high school and college compared to previous generations. These could all be factors, for sure. But I’d add some additional “signaling” elements that could be of serious concern: parents have devalued real work in favor of school homework and higher education admissions offices have devalued paid work over extracurricular activities. These sentiments have been captured by the common refrain among parents that their child’s “job” is to “get good grades,” and we’ve grown familiar with the expression of “padding one’s resume” with lots of extra-curricular activities to impress college admissions offices.
More broadly, perhaps we have devalued the learning value of work. And that could be the biggest disaster of all. In a world that has increasingly emphasized the importance of education, it would be a catastrophic failure to not celebrate the educational value of work and the ways in which school-based learning can and should enhance work opportunity and performance. These are not mutually exclusive values or functions; they reinforce each other.
The good news is there are signs of hope that the pendulum may be swinging back to favor the value of work. Whereas our current generation of young adults and parents may have been distracted by seemingly shinier objects for achieving success, the coming generation of parents with school-age children place strong emphasis on the value of good old-fashioned work. In a soon-to-be-released study I led, 9-out-of-10 of these parents agree “you can learn a lot from a job” and that “work is important for personal growth.” Clearly, they believe we have work to do and so should the rest of us.