The economic downturn hit young people especially hard. Today’s young adults are the “boomerang generation,” given how many have landed back home with parents. For teens, jobs are even harder to come by, and few places are tougher than Idaho. Last year, the state’s teen unemployment rate stood at 30 percent, one of the highest rates in the nation. It’s a number that represents lost opportunities.
It’s a weekday evening, and high school junior Igor Autin is kicked back in his living room, doing something he does a lot: playing video games. “This is Halo Reach,” Autin says. “It’s kind of the biggest game that’s out.”
On the screen, there’s a battle raging in what looks like a futuristic abandoned building. “This is a multiplayer map that is set in the remains of Sword Base, which is a human base that mainly dealt with small fighter missile launches,” he explains. Then he laughs. “I’m such a nerd for knowing that!” he says.
He knows that because he’s had time to get good. It’s the upside of not having a job. “I would love to have work to do,” Autin says, “but because there’s really nothing else to do, you’ve just got to stay occupied, so you play video games.”
Autin is a smart kid. He gets good grades, and he’s on the school debate team. He’s planning to go to college, and he’d love to go out of state. That means saving money, but he has had no luck finding a job, even after months of looking. He wonders how he’ll get work experience.
It’s the kind of situation that concerns Court Hanson, a college and career counselor at Boise High. “I’m worried that there is a group of teenagers that aren’t getting those work skills,” Hanson says. Hanson is afraid they’re not learning simple but important things, like how to deal with customers and co-workers, and how to problem-solve in a work environment. He says he won’t be surprised if some kids get all the way through college without ever being able to get a job. The market is just that bad.
“When we started the career center, we kept a huge three-ring binder with job announcements, job postings,” he says. It was a good two or three inches thick. Businesses called all the time, he says, looking for students with a few hours to spare after school. But they don’t call anymore. “I ended one school year with the notebook still pretty full, and I came back the next year, and that next year it went to zero, practically. Maybe one or two calls in a semester,” Hanson says.
Labor market analysts say young people face particular challenges, as they compete with older and more experienced workers in an economy that has made jobs scarce. Hanson says that’s bad news for all of the high school kids he works with. But it’s especially hard for students who need to work – the ones who start fending for themselves early.
Madison Bolan, a senior at Frank Church High School, is one such student. “Okay, I’ve gone to 13 different schools,” she says. “I’ve gone to seven different high schools.”
Bolan, 17, goes by Maddie. Family conflicts – she doesn’t want to be too specific about them – led her to move out earlier this year. She lives with her boyfriend, now. His mom has turned their house into a kind of way station for people who can’t quite make it on their own. “She’s got her ex-sister-in-law living there, and her kids used to live there, and his older sister lives there still, and their friends used to live there at one point,” Bolan explains. “We’re living there. There’s a bunch of people! Her boyfriend’s living there. There’s a bunch of people in the house. It’s hard, but we’re getting through it. It’s a recession.”
Bolan’s main worry is finding work. She’s been applying, but nothing has come through. She’s waiting to hear about an opening at a waterpark concession stand. It’s the sort of carefree summer job any teenager might do, but for Bolan there’s more at stake. She has plans for herself: community college, and then Boise State. But first, she needs a way to stay afloat. “It’s just scary, because time keeps going, whether you’re ready or not,” she says. “And you’ll get left behind. You will. And I just – I just need this job. I just need – you need a job!”
Another senior at Frank Church, Stephen Berry, has a different story, but similar desperation. “At my house, we have four people going off of one income,” he says. “So, even with food stamps and Medicaid, we still barely make it by.”
Berry’s stepdad works for a furniture store. His mom has an illness that requires expensive medications, and keeps her from working. Berry says he feels like burden. He wants to have a job, and chip in. “I’ve applied for at least 20 places, 25 places, multiple times each. And I know Wal-Mart, I’ve re-submitted my application at least seven times,” Berry says.
He focuses on Wal-Mart because it’s not far from his house, and he doesn’t have a car. He could work nights, he says, then go to school, and sleep in the evening. Instead, without a job, he sometimes spends afternoons walking to the businesses within a few miles of his home, asking if they have anything he could do. “There’s a very, very small chance of getting a job. So, you have to pretty much ignore your feelings to be able to get ready to go out and apply to all of those places again,” Berry says. “It’s really painful, but sometimes you’ve just got to take it on the chin and keep going.”
For Berry, at least, there is an opportunity in sight. He has joined the Marines, and he’ll head to boot camp in late July. He plans to give his family access to his bank account. But there’s a lot of time to get through between now and then.
The pernicious thing about teen unemployment, analysts say, is that it has a tight grip. When you don’t work as a teen, you have a harder time as a young adult. When you have a hard time as a young adult, you have a harder time later on, in middle age. If all of that holds, thousands of Idaho teens have a long road ahead.