SUMMER is the traditional time when teenagers and young adults find temporary work or embark on a career.
But with the season's start just weeks away, the job outlook is bleak for American youth. Their prospects of finding gainful employment during the next few months, much less over the longer term, are worse today than at the beginning of the recession three years ago.
Government statistics reveal that more than 1 in 3 teenagers is unemployed, has given up the job search or is underemployed - working part-time despite efforts to secure a full-time position.
And while the nation's "official unemployment rate" (defined as those who have no work at all, and are actively seeking work and fail to find it) is a nagging 7 percent, it is three times worse among 16- to 19-year-olds. For young people ages 20 to 24, the rate is 50 percent higher than the national average.
Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who has conducted extensive research on the subject, draws strong links between low wages, lack of work, hopelessness, and crime. "We can't continue over a long period with a substantial portion of our youth not making it," he says.
The problem is vexing to Mr. Freeman and other labor economists as well as to advocates and politicians who see its scope becoming larger and more complex. They warn of high social and economic costs related to an increasing number of young Americans out of work.
Freeman is concerned about the ongoing trend in which jobs are tough to find, and the pay is generally poor. "This is the worst year for college graduates, but less-educated youth are taking a much tougher beating." Drag on economic growth
For the latter group, he says, "it's a disaster out there," and adds that this is one of the factors that could be a drag on United States economic growth over the long term. "People get their skills when they are young. If they don't get on a good track early, they may recover some gains later on, but it's still a big negative."
Today's youth face the same challenges present during the Great Depression, he says. "Back then, people entering the job market never caught up - they were years behind the normal rate of progression."
By contrast, Freeman says, those who entered the work force in the middle of World War II saw "their lifetime trajectory of earnings go up fast."
Clearly such opportunity has faded. "The labor force participation rate for young people is very low," says Janet Norwood, former commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), who is now studying the problem as a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "That's very worrisome," she says, "It's a real social problem."
According to BLS data, three times as many white American youths are out of work than are minority youths, but as a percentage of population, official unemployment among American black teens is approaching a staggering 50 percent.
The impact is particularly acute in urban areas across the US. City officials from Los Angeles to Baltimore are grappling with increasing numbers of idle youth who view crime and gang memberships - rather than a job after school - as their rite of passage to adulthood.
During the next several weeks, as millions of graduates pour out of high schools and colleges across the nation, the problem will be compounded, warns Alan Zuckerman, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The coalition represents 50 job-training programs that span the country, including the Urban League, Boston's Jobs for Youth, Chicago's Alternative School Network, and San Francisco's New Ways to Work.
"It used to be that kids always learned a new job alongside their fathers, their uncles, or their grandfathers," says Mr. Zuckerman, who laments that employment opportunities have narrowed for all generations.
"When young people look around and see no one working," Zuckerman says, "many reach the conclusion that they don't have a chance of getting a job which will support them. It is difficult for family, friends, or teachers to convince young people that there is payoff for doing well or remaining in school."
High school dropouts are part and product of deteriorating social conditions, he says. Improving job quality
Labor Secretary Robert Reich, one of the chief architects of President Clinton's embattled economic plan and all-but-dead jobs bill, says, "We do need to get back on track, but we need to improve the track. We need to improve the quality of jobs."
Mr. Reich, who likes to say that 95 percent of policymaking is the definition of the problem, asserts that for the employed, "75 percent of American workers are on a downward escalator in terms of earnings."
This development afflicts the unskilled or minimally trained workers the most, he says, because they are "competing with millions of people around the world eager to compete with American workers at a fraction of the prevailing wage."
He conceded that "there are very few alternatives to college that will lead to a good job."
Zuckerman and other advocates are pressing the Clinton administration to help fund training, promote business development and job creation, and restore the hope that American youth once took for granted.
* Part 1 of 3. Parts 2 and 3 will explore existing programs and prescriptions for change.