I well remember how my first job made me feel: capable, creative, in charge. I was a summer counselor at a YMCA day camp, and still practically a kid myself, just out of 10th grade. I made a lot of mistakes.
As the arts and crafts counselor, I blew most of my $200 budget on Popsicle sticks and gimp. We ran out of arts and crafts supplies halfway through the summer, and so taking long "nature walks" became our fallback. I wonder what the campers' parents thought.
Making mistakes like that is partly what early jobs are all about. We learn, and then make better decisions when the "real" job comes along.
So it's troubling that teens today are facing their third straight summer of bleak employment prospects -- in fact, the worst since World War II, when the government began keeping track. In April, the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds approached 25 percent. And the unemployment rate only counts those actively looking. Many are too discouraged by the dismal economy to try.
Parents may debate the merits of teens taking jobs bagging groceries versus studying or pursuing music, sports or college-level courses. But the poorest Americans don't have that choice, and to double down on their woes, they are hit hardest by teen unemployment. Last summer, just one in five teenagers with annual family income below $20,000 had a job, according to a report by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies.
Not only aren't these teens earning needed cash -- or learning the life lessons I got at the YMCA -- but the joblessness they experience now may drag them down for years. One study in the United States and Britain said that 37-year-old men who had sustained a year of unemployment before age 23 made 23 percent less than their peers. The equivalent gap was 16 percent for women.
College graduates who took jobs beneath their education or outside of their fields often never got back to where they might have been, according to what the Japanese learned from their "lost decade" of economic doldrums in the 1990s and early 2000s. When the Japanese economy recovered, employers preferred graduates fresh out of school, creating a generation that suffers higher rates of depression, heart attack and suicide, and lower life expectancy.
These structural problems with capitalism -- the ups and downs of the business cycle -- should not be borne by individuals, but collectively. That's why we have unemployment insurance, for example.
Other countries seem to have a better understanding of this. Germany's renowned apprenticeship program, a training period of two to four years, attracts roughly two-thirds of vocational school students there. They're often hired afterward, one reason Germany has a far lower youth unemployment rate than us, at 9.5 percent. Firms and government share the apprenticeship expenses.
The Netherlands, also keen on averting a lost generation of workers, is dividing full-time private sector jobs into two or three part-time ones, with government providing supplemental income for part-time workers. When the economy improves, Dutch 20-somethings will be ready with skills and experience.
The New York Youth Works program has the right idea. On Long Island, at least 64 employers have signed up. The program offers them tax credits for hiring low-income youth. Given that unemployment among teens is more than twice the 7.4 percent rate for adults on Long Island, we should expand this program.
When teens work, it teaches them independence, responsibility, a good work ethic and how to get along with others. Our collective future depends on investing in their success.
This essay was first published in Newsday.