The US, you could have heard, is in a lifeguard scarcity. Town of Houston is providing new lifeguards a $500 bonus. Jackson, Mississippi, is elevating lifeguard pay by greater than 40 p.c. Colorado is “stepping up” with $250,000 for hiring lifeguard reinforcements; within the meantime, senior residents are filling in. Based on the American Lifeguard Affiliation, about half of the nation’s public swimming pools must shut or cut back their hours this summer season due to a scarcity of workers.
The present scarcity could be largely blamed on pandemic-era closures and work restrictions, in keeping with information experiences. But when that accounts for this 12 months’s scarcity in addition to these reported in 2020, 2021, and 2022, it can not clarify the nationwide lifeguard shortages of 2018, 2016, or 2012. Or, for that matter, a reported lifeguard scarcity in 1984. Or 1951. Or 1926.
These crises—and the newspaper tales that describe them—are as a lot a summer season custom as boardwalks and ice cream. Native or nationwide information articles on the topic have appeared in Might or June of each single 12 months of the twenty first century. Tons of extra specimens of this perennial have been printed for the reason that Nineteen Thirties. Every lays out the identical fundamental claims: The swimming season may be compromised; drownings may improve. However few acknowledge that such claims had been additionally made the 12 months earlier than, and in all of the years earlier than that. Certainly, the specter of a protracted, unguarded summer season has haunted us for 5 generations now, about so long as there have been formally educated lifeguards in America.
The explanations given for the shortages have various with the occasions. Now, in fact, we’ve got COVID. Within the Nineteen Eighties, authorities blamed Gen X demographics: “It’s occurring as a result of there merely aren’t as many 16-year-olds,” one instructed The New York Occasions. Within the Fifties, they blamed the IRS: “Many lifeguards stop earlier than incomes $600 so their fathers can declare them as revenue tax dependents,” defined the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Within the Forties, consultants mentioned that the draft had roped in so most of the nation’s younger males that, per The Baltimore Solar, some seashores and swimming pools had been “significantly contemplating using girls.” And within the Nineteen Thirties, the scarcity was attributed to the absorption of potential lifeguards into the Works Progress Administration.
However general, the purported causes of shortages are remarkably repetitive and, in lots of instances, remarkably ahistoric.
The stringent necessities of lifeguarding—taking and paying for a multiday course to go a troublesome bodily examination—are a recurring scapegoat. So is low pay. In 1941, pool managers complained that younger males who hadn’t been drafted may make way more working in protection industries than as a lifeguard. In 2007, a New Jersey lifeguard captain lamented to the Occasions that “iPods and cellphones are costly … If youngsters are searching for the highest-paying job, it isn’t prone to be lifeguarding.” In that very same article, a Connecticut parks official blamed the rising emphasis on career-building (and the concurrent rise of internships). The YMCA’s water-safety specialist additionally cited internships, in 2021. Any time unemployment is low, somebody accuses it of contributing to the lifeguard scarcity.
By far probably the most constant explanations through the years can greatest be described as “youngsters as of late.” See 1987: “The youngsters round right here have an excessive amount of cash.” And 2015: “There’s one other large turnoff: having a cellphone on the lifeguard stand is a firing offense.” And 2019: “Some [teens] are even terrified of the lifesaving duty the job carries.” And 2022: “Individuals simply don’t wish to do this type of job.” And 2023: “Since COVID, individuals don’t wish to work.” Wyatt Werneth, the nationwide spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Affiliation, instructed me this week that, after the pandemic arrived, individuals who may in any other case be lifeguard candidates started choosing jobs that might be completed at house, similar to “the influencing and social media and stuff like that.”
After which, in fact, there’s the largest downside of all: Nobody appears as much as lifeguards anymore. From The New York Occasions in 1984: “Lifeguards had been as soon as authority figures, similar to lecturers as soon as had been. However the glory of the authoritarian age is gone.” In 1985, the Occasions wistfully recalled the lifeguard-loving cinema of the ’50s and ’60s (Seaside Blanket Bingo and its ilk) and the reverence it as soon as impressed. Robert A. Kerwin, the water-safety coordinator of the New Jersey State Division of Parks and Forestry, instructed the paper, “The day of the macho lifeguard sitting within the chair flexing his muscle tissue is completed. For one factor, 25 p.c of our guards are ladies.” (For what it’s price, Newspapers.com lists loads of articles about lifeguard shortages from the ’50s and the ’60s too.)
The Occasions as soon as declared, “The lifeguard is an endangered species.” However its inhabitants recovered briefly within the Nineteen Nineties, because of David Hasselhoff. “Once I turned a lifeguard,” Werneth mentioned, “we had Baywatch, and all people wished to be a lifeguard. They wished that life-style the place you had helicopters and also you had quick boats and exquisite individuals, and also you’re saving lives.” However Baywatch: Hawaii ceased manufacturing in 2001, and after that, Werneth instructed me, “issues began declining.” Lifeguard employment took a dip after which a swan dive beginning in 2020. “I can nearly name it a floor zero,” Bernard Fisher, the director of the American Lifeguard Affiliation, mentioned of the scarcity in a 2022 Fox Information article.
Regardless of the tenor of that analogy (Fisher additionally in contrast the shortage of lifeguards to the shortage of child system), drowning charges haven’t actually spiked. In actual fact, they’re now a 3rd of what they had been in 1970, and have been dropping steadily for a century or extra. (There was a really slight uptick in 2020 and 2021, the newest years for which information can be found.) In different phrases, the various lifeguard crises of the previous—or maybe the one, unending one—haven’t correlated with any widespread drowning crises in America. That doesn’t imply that lifeguard shortages are faux, however laborious information on their scope stay obscure. Werneth instructed me that the American Lifeguard Affiliation receives “very sporadic” experiences from swimming pools, parks, and seashores, and has only a tough sense of the extent of want in numerous areas.
But when the lifeguard is as soon as once more an endangered species, it’s nonetheless beloved: extra like a large panda than a Gerlach’s cockroach. As a tradition, we do nonetheless consider lifeguards as horny, heroic, and important (if not authoritarian). Baywatch could also be off the air, however it’s all the time coming again.