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August, 2001, Vol. 124, No. 8

Youth employment in the United States

Donna S. Rothstein

Today’s youths commonly gain employment experience through working for a particular employer, such as a fast-food restaurant, or through a less formal arrangement, such as babysitting for a neighbor. The purpose of this article is to provide a detailed profile of the employment of today’s youths using round-1 data from a new survey of youth: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 (NLSY97). The article reports the incidence, intensity, and timing of youth employment (school vs. summer), shows the industries and occupations in which youths commonly work, and examines employment differences across gender, race, ethnic group, household income, and family structure.

Data and definitions

The data presented are from the first interview of the NLSY97, a nationally representative sample of about 9,000 young men and women who were born between January 1, 1980, and December 31, 1984.1  The first interview took place in 1997, when these youths were aged 12 to 17 years. The NLSY97 collects extensive information on youths’ labor market experiences, in addition to information on a wide array of other topics, such as schooling and family background. Members of the sample are interviewed annually.2 

Early work experience can include "employee" jobs, wherein a youth has an ongoing relationship with a particular employer, such as a job working in a supermarket or restaurant, and "freelance" jobs, in which the youth does one or a few tasks without a specific "boss," such as babysitting, mowing lawns, or working for oneself. The NLSY97 seeks to gather a longitudinal record of youths’ employment experiences, rather than taking a snapshot of their labor market status at a particular point in time.3  In order to accomplish this, survey respondents aged 14 and older are asked to list all employee jobs they held from the age of 14 to the date of the interview. A calendar is filled out by the interviewer and is shown to the respondent to confirm all beginning and ending dates of employee jobs, as well as any gaps between those dates within which the respondent did not work. Respondents also provide other information about each employee job held, such as the industry and occupation into which the job was classified. Next, respondents 14 and older are asked to list all freelance jobs they held from the age of 14 to the date of the interview. Again, a calendar is used to confirm all beginning and ending dates of freelance jobs. Due to the sporadic nature of freelance jobs, however, data on periods of nonwork between those dates are not collected. Respondents also provide information on the characteristics of each freelance job they held.   

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1 Data include oversamples of black and Hispanic youths. Subsequent to the release of round-1 NLSY97 data, some duplicate observations were discovered, and the sample size for that round then fell from 9,022 to 8,984. Sample weights at the time this article was begun were based on all 9,022 observations, and the tables that are presented use the full round-1 sample, as well as round-1 sample weights to adjust for differing sample rates; this approach ensures that the data are nationally representative of U.S. youths born in the years 1980–84.

2 A number of the tables in this article also appear in Press Release USDL 99–110 and Report on the Youth Labor Force (Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2000).

3 However, the round-1 survey also contains a "CPS Section" containing questions from the Current Population Survey that can be used to determine a youth’s labor force status in the week prior to the interview. The article "Youth employment: results from two longitudinal surveys" (this issue, pp. 25–37) uses data from the "CPS Section."

Related BLS programs

National Longitudinal Surveys

Related Monthly Labor Review articles

Teenagers: employment and contributions to family spendingSept. 2000.

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