Biz Press Teaches Teens to Heed Dumb Statistics

Perhaps it's a good thing teenagers these days aren't reading newspapers - it can be confusing enough as it is to be 17 or 18.

Perhaps it’s a good thing teenagers these days aren’t reading newspapers — it can be confusing enough as it is to be 17 or 18. And any Massachusetts-dwelling teen who happened to peruse two area newspapers this week can be forgiven for feeling twice as perplexed as usual.

On Monday, the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor reported the following: “According to labor analysts, the job market for young people this summer will be nearly as austere as over the past several years, despite an upswing in employment numbers in the overall labor market.” The story’s anecdotal lede introduced 19-year-old Jasmine who is having scant luck finding summer employment. The headline: “Summer Job Forecast: Cloudy.”

One day later, the forecast at the Quincy, Massachusetts-based Patriot Ledger was far brighter. “Summer jobs for teenagers and young adults are easier to find this year, due in part to an increase in the number of college students enrolled in summer courses and an overall stronger employment market, labor analysts say,” according to a story with an anecdotal lede featuring 18-year-old Mitch who landed his sales job in a matter of weeks. The headline: “Summer Job Market Heats Up.”

And, in support of their very different outlooks, both articles quoted the same expert talking about the same study on summer teen employment.

Monitor: “‘The last few summers saw some of the lowest teen employment rates in history,’ says Joseph McLaughlin, a research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University and one of the authors of an annual summer teen job-market report. They predict an employment rate of 37.4 percent for the summer of 2006 — marking only a slight improvement over last year’s 36.8 percent… ‘It wasn’t surprising that [teens] were hit so hard by [the recession of] 2001,’Mr. McLaughlin says. ‘What was surprising is that their recovery has been very slow.’”

Ledger: “A study by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston also indicated an increase in summer jobs for seekers age 16 to 19. ‘We’ve had steady job creation nationally over the last two years and I think teens are beginning to benefit from a better labor market,’ said Joe McLaughlin, a co-author of the study.”

Funny how, with the right anecdotal lede and the right quote or two, two reporters can frame the same data so differently. Glass half-full! Glass half-empty!

So what gives? Is the summer job forecast for young people “cloudy” or “heat[ing] up?” The more accurate headline would probably have been something less emphatic and pithy, like: “Likely to Be Slightly Better Than Years Past, Which Weren’t Too Hot” — but of course, no newspaper would run a headline as unwieldy and un-eye-catching as that.

By press time, we weren’t able to get our hands on the Northeastern study to see how its headline was phrased (or get the study’s author to call us back, to find out whether, at bottom, he was an optimist or a pessimist, whether he’d been very selectively quoted by one or both reporters, tailored his comments to suit their respective optimistic/pessimistic theses, or what).

But, since both the Monitor and the Ledger were foretelling national teen employment prospects, we decided to take a look at the forecasts of other newspapers around the country.

Two weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News published a piece with a decidedly upbeat tone (again, quoting McLaughlin of Northeastern University). “Teens had to compete for jobs with older, more experienced workers when the employment market was weaker. Now with the nation’s unemployment rate unchanged at 4.7 percent last month, the U.S. economy appears to be healthier, said Joseph McLaughlin, a senior research associate at the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.”

On May 28, the Nashua (New Hampshire) Telegraph (“Prospects Bright for Those Seeking Summer Employment”) reported that according to local teens “the summer job market is looking up this year” and that “their opinion is echoed by a recent Northeastern University study” (among other reports).

And on May 11, there was this headline from the Wall Street Journal: “Summer Jobs Are Easier to Find This Year.” Reported the Journal, “Summer job prospects for students … are looking brighter this year…Landing a summer job…became more difficult in recent years, as young people had to compete for jobs with older, more-experienced workers in a weaker employment market. Now, as the nation’s economy picks up steam and the unemployment rate hovers at its lowest level in nearly five years, many employers and online job sites report increased hiring this summer…Overall, [Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University] expects things to improve this summer, based on teen employment trends so far this year.”

One reason cited for these sunny forecasts — apart from the economy “pick[ing] up”— is the opt-out factor. As the Journal reported, “In recent years, many students have been opting out of the job market and going to summer-school programs.” Or, as the Nashua Telegraph wrote: “While many students will hunt for a summer job, an increasing number will hit the books, opening the door to employment for those wanting to work,” such that “students can thank their fellow peers, in part, for the positive job market this year…”

Which “peers,” exactly, can teens “thank” for opting-out of summer employment? Those on whom the New York Times Styles section chose to focus this past Sunday in its lament for the “Lost Summer for the College-Bound” — namely, that “small but growing number of college-bound students” who can only dream of scooping ice-cream or performing other “menial jobs” this summer but must instead do “resumé-building academic work” like attending summer classes at Brown University or undertaking “exotic projects to change the world” like volunteering at a camp for orphans in Romania, if not both. Why must these luckless young people forego the pleasures of burger-flipping and shirt-folding for “high achievement summers?” They are, per the Times, “driven largely by increased competition to get into elite colleges and universities…school administrators and parents say.”

And just when we thought the reporter, 890 words into it, was finally going to acknowledge the obvious, we get this: “The number of high school students competing in this Ivy-oriented decathlon tends to be limited to a thin slice of the most…” (affluent?) “… ambitious, said Joseph L. Mahoney, a psychologist on the faculty of Yale University.” Luckily, Mahoney later adds, “‘There is a general association: families that have higher incomes, more affluent families, have youth that participate’ in extracurricular activities ‘for a greater number of hours’ he said.” In other words, youth who have the privilege of having to be “ambitious” in this way.

Either way, as we learned from the Times not too long ago, these kids will all grow up to be successful moochers from “The Bank of Mom and Dad.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.