This summer, James Hamill had a choice. The Florida 15-year-old could have applied for a job renting canoes at a local state park, or bagging groceries at Winn-Dixie with a friend. Or, he could wake up at 5 every morning for football practice, study advanced placement physics all day, lift weights all evening, and be in bed by nine "eight if I'm lucky," he says.
He chose to develop his quadriceps and his quantum mechanics, joining a growing number of teens who are forsaking traditional summer jobs to strengthen their shot at admission to top colleges.
James says he has no regrets. Accepting an invitation to practice weight-lifting at the US Olympic training center, he reckons, makes it more likely that Stanford University will accept him.
Still, he talks wistfully about how simple his summer might have been: "It sounds like a whole lot of fun actually," he says, "just being outdoors, being with my friends."
It's a tale being repeated in the lives of high-schoolers across America. College prep is displacing the old routines of sometimes-rigorous work and always-rigorous play that once held sway in the sweltering months between school years.
This summer, fewer than 58 percent of teens are expected to enter the US workforce the lowest participation rate among 16- to 19-year-olds since the Labor Department started keeping statistics in 1948. Participation last July stood at 60.6 percent.
Part of the reason, of course, is the economy: During slumps there are fewer jobs available, particularly for teens. This time, to boot, more teens from middle-income families aren't even trying to work. They'd rather engage in unpaid internships or academic pursuits that will catch the eye of competitive schools. Fewer are enjoying the pleasures of the swimming-hole or learning the mundane virtue of punching a timecard at Sears.