While the June jobs report exceeded expectations, adding 850,000 payrolls, it also blew up a developing narrative that teenagers were helping solve the country’s labor shortage.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, teen unemployment rates in April and May were at 12.3% and 9.6%, respectively, signaling that in the spring, teenagers were jumping into the labor force. But the unemployment rate for the 16-19 age group sat at 9.9% in June, suggesting the trend might not continue throughout the summer.
The New York Times economics reporter Ben Casselman wrote on Twitter that in the spring, teen employment was well above pre-pandemic levels, but with their employment level in June fairly close to the pre-pandemic level, teens likely won’t be boosting labor supply.
The following chart shows employment for 16 to 19 years old in May from 2015-2021:
The following chart shows employment for 16 to 19 years old in June from 2015-2021. Employment in June 2021 seems to be similar to levels seen in 2019.
US business owners have been flocking to hire teens amidst a labor shortage, according to a Wall Street Journal report in early June, as teen unemployment rates in the US were at their lowest level since 1953 following the May jobs report, and the number of teens in work had reached the highest rate since 2008.
The labor shortage had given teens the opportunity to cherry-pick for the best-paying jobs. As Ric Serrano, CEO of Serrano’s Mexican Restaurants, told the Journal, “It’s a perfect storm for them.”
Another restaurant owner, Ben Eli – who owns Doris Metropolitan steakhouses in Houston and New Orleans, told the Journal that he had been significantly struggling to find workers, and he’s only been able to hire teens.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “They are 100% of my staffing right now.”
Employees are definitely coming back to work, though, and restaurants may not have to rely on teenagers to keep service afloat. June’s jobs report revealed a 343,000 payroll gain in just the leisure and hospitality sector, largely thanks to increased wages for those workers in the industries that teenagers had mainly staffed.
And President Joe Biden saw this as a promising sign moving forward in economic recovery.
“More jobs, better wages – that’s a good combination,” Biden said during his remarks on Friday. “Put simply: Our economy is on the move, and we have COVID-19 on the run.” While this may be true, teens may not be leading the charge after June.
Adam Alter: “Nomophobia” is a new word that’s being coined to describe no mobile phobia, and it’s the idea that a lot of us, in thinking about not having our phones, experience something like a phobia, and this is supposed to describe hundreds of millions of people today, and I’m sure that number is growing at the moment. What that means is that when you think about, for example, your phone falling out of your pocket, tumbling to the ground, and shattering into a million pieces, you should experience anxiety symptoms, and it’s especially true among young people.
I ran a study at one point where I asked young people, a whole lot of teenagers, a very simple question. I said to them: “Imagine you have this very unpleasant choice. So, you can either watch your phone tumble to the ground and shatter into a million pieces or you can have a small bone in your hand broken.” Now, that seems to people of a certain age and older like a fairly straightforward question with a straightforward answer. It seems ridiculous. Of course you choose to save the integrity of your hand and let your phone break. You can always replace a phone, but for young people this is actually a very difficult question. In my experience, about 40% to 50% of them will say, “Ultimately, I think it probably makes more sense to have a bone in my hand broken than it does to have my phone broken.”
And you can understand why that is, apart from the fact that it is expensive to have a phone repaired and there’s some time where you’re without your phone. That is their portal to a social world that is very important to them. Being without that social world for a while is probably not as detrimental in some respects as being without a particular bone in your hand. Most of the time, you can get by and you can see this in the way they ask follow-up questions. So, a lot of these teens will say to me things like, “Is it my left hand or my right hand?” and the most important question, “Once I break that bone in my hand, can I still use my phone? Is it a bone that I need to be able to scroll on the phone, because if it is, then that’s no deal, but if it’s not a bone that I need to use my screen at least I can continue to use my phone during the time I’m healing.” If people are willing to endure physical harm to keep their phones that obviously suggests that this is a major issue.
The definition that I like for behavioral addiction that makes the most sense to me is an experience that we return to compulsively over and over again because it feels good in a short run but in the long run, it ultimately undermines our well-being in some respect. So, it can be someone who notices that over time their social relationships are degrading because they don’t have a consistent, face-to-face contact with people and that’s especially problematic for kids who need time in that real face-to-face social world because that’s where they develop all the competencies of being a social creature. The way to work out what other people are thinking, to share your feelings in a way that you want them to be shared for other people to understand you for you to make just the right facial expressions at just the right times. Those seem like obvious and easy-to-do things for most adults but for kids it’s very difficult to do that. They take time to hone those skills and so you need face-to-face time to do that and if you don’t have that, if you’re spending all your time on screens because it’s really fun to crush one more candy on Candy Crush or do whatever it is that you might be doing, you’re not developing those long-term competencies and therefore your long-term well-being is degraded.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2018.
To some, it might seem idyllic: 160 acres in the Wyoming hinterlands, nothing but mountains, plains, and the endless possibilities that come with reconnecting to Mother Nature through meaningful farmhand work, answering only to the fruits of one’s labor.
Trinity Teen Solutions claims to offer what its name suggests: a solution for teens who’ve fallen into trouble, struggled with depression or anxiety, or have exhibited erratic behavior their parents might call “out of control.” To the great misfortune of the young women (aged 12 to 17) admitted to the working ranch – which, according to the program’s website, offers “a family-style atmosphere” that “enables true healing and empowers girls to have successful and healthy futures” – they may indeed be treated like problems in need of a solution.
A new class-action lawsuit paints a different picture
A class-action lawsuit filed in November of last year in the District Court of Wyoming by five former clients of the program paints a starkly different picture than one of empowering therapy – a vignette which comes as no surprise to those who have watched the billion-dollar behavioral modification and “tough love” treatment industry boom over the last several decades.
The complaint alleges that clients of the program were “subjected to or threatened with food and sleep deprivation, physical punishment, emotional abuse, and humiliation, to include, but not limited to, being leashed to other exploited girls, staff members, and/or farm animals, carrying around a folding chair as punishment for twenty-four (24) hours a day for months on end, forced silence for weeks at a time, being forced to run up and down a massive hill covered in sharp rocks and rattlesnakes, being forced to eat only small quantities of cold kidney beans for weeks at a time, participation in ‘group therapy’ without a licensed therapist with the sole purpose of staff and other exploited girls degrading and humiliating the participant, to force compliance with mandated labor assignments.”
Angie Woodward, the director of Trinity Tee Solutions, said in an email the program plans to file a motion to dismiss. “The allegations in the lawsuit remain unproven and are disputed,” Woodward wrote.
The troubling truth is that despite half-hearted federal and state investigations, many programs remain open and employ therapeutic techniques similar to what is alleged in the Trinity lawsuit. As survivors of these programs have aged into their late-twenties and early-thirties, their claims of abuse and neglect are only now being heard, thanks in part to celebrity awareness.
But if we are to look honestly at the troubled teen industry, we must label the term “troubled” itself as a proximate, not an ultimate, cause for the failure of the industry to appropriately address teens in need of help.
There are many ultimate causes, but perhaps the easiest ones to identify are the lack of state and federal policy regulating these programs and the language used to discuss, encourage, and impel these types of non-evidence-based treatments. The failure of duty to care for so-called “troubled teens” begins with language.
Euphemistic language doesn’t solve the problem
The suit’s allegations counter a narrative touted by the industry in recent weeks: that since allegations were made against a similar program in Utah – which Paris Hilton attended more than a decade ago – and since separate accusations of abuse, neglect, and emotional harassment by similar programs were detailed in my recent book, the industry has changed.
Many in the industry argue that for all the recent media and legislative efforts across the country to further regulate and investigate programs for teenagers in despair, the programs have morphed into something positive. They are not the programs that my book and Hilton’s documentary sought to underscore as troubled, industry professionals told me. They had improved.
One podcast, vaguely called Wilderness Therapy & Residential Treatment Center Journey, touted all the ways in which wilderness therapy – which many industry professionals prefer to call “adventure therapy” – had sought to end the kidnapping of teenagers as a way to transport them to its programs. These programs often use other euphemisms besides “adventure therapy” – they call the kidnapping of children from their beds at the behest of parents, “transportation” or “interventions.” Likewise, they say they don’t employ “solitary confinement,” but rather “calming rooms,” a term used in the past by a Utah-based program.
Meanwhile, a website for parents who are seeking treatment options for their children was quick to publish posts about how “there were no treatment plans in the early days” when Hilton was sent away, but now there were.
A licensed clinical social worker, in an email thread shared among a “task force” looking to further study the “in-home intervention” methods of snatching children from their beds to bring them to these programs, said he wouldn’t engage with criticism of the industry in part because my “lingo” didn’t align with his priorities. Perhaps because I wasn’t myself an industry professional, but a journalist and someone who had experienced these programs first-hand, my views were skewed and therefore invalid.
The industry says programs have changed. But lawsuits keep coming.
The industry claims these programs have changed, yet fresh lawsuits, like the one in Wyoming, still arise. And the people tasked with caring for troubled teens are sometimes no less troubled than the teens themselves, with many staffers’ lacking a background in childcare or clinical psychology. In many cases, staffers have only met the criteria of recent job postings which only require counselors to have graduated high school and be 21 years of age or older.
When seeking to discuss my latest work – dispelling the myth that behavioral treatment programs for teenagers help children who are struggling – a “certified parent coach” listed one of his qualifications as his “male voice, which works well with both female and male parents.”
A former education consultant, who created a website for parents seeking alternative therapeutic treatment, allows programs to list their services (for an undisclosed fee) without vetting the veracity of the treatments offered or the credentials of the staff to treat minors which, without due diligence, legitimizes harmful programs.
An owner of a program in the South, who wrote to me in seeking a dialogue about how the programs and this moment might manifest positive changes in the industry, said he believes “there are serious moral deficits in the way that business is run, in how [the industry] operates and advertises, the idea of placement outside the home being more effective than an IOP [intensive outpatient programs], and the practice of transporting adolescents.”
He did not wish to speak on the record because “my entire social circle would be significantly impacted if I gave a blanket statement that contributed to the closure of their companies. I fully own that there is a need for self-preservation.”
Despite this, he had said that he was excited about “an opportunity to manifest a totally different industry,” one which “does force parents to listen to their children, and provides local resources, and doesn’t guilt trip them on to a 200k carousel.”
From where I sat, even this correspondence amounted to nothing more than another set of “promises,” more rhetoric aimed at slowing what momentum there was for change in order to allow the dust to settle.
Language is everything. Intention is used to determine the difference between murder and homicide, abuse and neglect, and it should likewise be used to determine whether harmful practices were implemented despite the most well-meaning staff at these programs.
In the middle of all the wordplay, the “troubled teens” – as they’re still called – continue to be placed in these programs and subjected to suffering which lasts well into adulthood.