The drama of teen employment unfolds in front of Sue Paustenbach almost daily at Maciano's Pizzeria and Pastaria on Eola Road in Aurora, Ill.
In addition to managing the place, Paustenbach is the mother of a 16-year-old. But while Paustenbach started working at age 14, clearing tables at a golf course restaurant, she does not expect -- nor necessarily want -- her own son to hold down a steady job during his high school years.
Fewer teenagers have jobs or are looking for jobs this year than at any time since researchers started gathering statistics on such things in 1948. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that about 33 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are in the labor force, meaning they are employed or looking for jobs. Thirty years ago, when teen employment was at its peak, almost 60 percent of them were in the labor force.
Conventional cynicism might suggest the trend shows that today's teens are a lazy bunch, distracted, maybe even hypnotized by -- or addicted to -- video games, Facebook and texting.
The truth is a little more nuanced. Sure, kids might shoulder some responsibility for the historic low. But so do their parents.
The evidence suggests that parents are "more willing to have their kids participate in school instead of in a job," said Teresa Morisi, an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics with the bureau. "Also it suggests that they would substitute volunteer work for paid employment."
The recession clearly is playing a part, and Morisi noted that she is unable to distinguish what portion of teen unemployment is due to the economic downturn. But the overall trend of teen employment has been dropping, except for a couple of hiccups, since about 1981 -- in recessions and periods of robust economic health alike.
Paustenbach's son, Aaron, was enrolled in a couple of honors courses and playing football this year. Aaron participates in a summer baseball league, and a summer workout program for the football team occupies chunks of four days each week, she said.
When he can squeeze it in, he passes out fliers for Maciano's and helps clean the restaurant, Paustenbach said, and that's exactly the way she wants it. She doesn't want to weigh down his dreams of a career in sports journalism with a menial job.
"I believe in school first, over everything," Paustenbach said. "I just want to be sure that he has every opportunity to follow his dreams, and I'll do whatever I can to help, because I didn't do it."
Kelsey Marks runs into similar sentiment at times from her parents. Marks, 17, who graduated from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill., on May 23, was captain of the lacrosse team and is a leader of her Young Life Christian group. She participates in another youth group at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Naperville and is a high-achieving student who took college-level classes in calculus, speech, anatomy and physiology.
She worked for a while, too, at Players Indoor Sports Center. But when lacrosse tryouts started in March, something in her schedule had to give, and her parents pointed to the job. She quit but began work as a lifeguard once school ended for the year.
"They've always been supportive," Marks said. "But there have been times when they've said that I need to slow down a little bit and take a break."
Her mother, Cindy Marks, said her daughter is a "very driven and assertive individual. Our philosophy is family first, then school work, then your athletics and then work. She tries to balance all that and it gets overwhelming sometimes, even if you take work off the plate."