At what point should young people start working a paying job? All children must, as they grow up, transition from a helpless infant to a productive adult. In every human society, children begin to take on jobs and responsibilities as they become able. In a preindustrial economy, it is easy to imagine young children taking care of chickens or vegetables and graduating to more difficult tasks as they get older. With the rise of modern industry, laws were needed to protect children from economic exploitation.
As the economy grows more complex, we now expect young people to spend most of their time in school, to prepare them to enter the workforce. Some say that young people should also be encouraged to find paid jobs after school and over the summer, as employment might provide a different kind of preparation than schoolwork alone. Others worry that a stressful job could interfere with homework and leave youth with little energy left for school.
Youth employment has always varied by temperament. Some young people care more about having more spending money or more free time. But across-the-board trends in youth employment are often cause for comment among adults.
For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, teen employment was steadily on the rise. Did this mean that young people were choosing to improve their long-term employability, or that they were neglecting their education in exchange for quick cash?
In the aftermath of the 2007 recession, teen employment declined sharply. Economic observers noted that when highly qualified adults were having a hard time finding work, it was much harder for kids to find their first job. Many people had to accept jobs they were overqualified for: adults found themselves doing the minimally-skilled work that teens used to do, whereas teens found no work at all.
Some adults worried that high teen unemployment could be a problem for the economy in a few years. Would young people be less employable once they grow up if they lack early job experience?
Danielle Kurtzleben at the online news outlet Vox argued in 2014 that low teen employment is probably not a problem. If young people are worried about their careers, she said, they would be better off spending their summers and evenings learning skills that might not be taught at school, like computer programming, instead of working at McDonalds. Studies have found that the long-term economic benefit of teen employment is not as great as it used to be. Furthermore, Kurtzleben argued, teens are spending more time in school than they were a generation ago, so there is less time for paid work.
For young people who are struggling in school or don’t have access to a good education, early employment can be a way of keeping out of trouble. Criminologists observe that youth violence peaks every year in the summer months, when school is not in session. According to Father Greg Boyle, a priest who works with gang-involved youth in Los Angeles, “Invariably, the violence in the neighborhood decreases in direct proportion to how many kids are working at any given time.” But while employment can be a very effective solution to juvenile delinquency, it can be very hard to find stable jobs for youth with criminal records.
A job can play a variety of roles in a young person’s life. There is no one-size-fits-all solution as to whether employment is generally a good idea for teens.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you think it can be beneficial for students to work paid jobs, even if it means they have less time and energy for school? Is it perhaps not necessary for every student to focus exclusively on education?
What would concern you more: if far more teens were working today than a generation ago, or if far fewer were working?
Do you think it would be better to advise young people to go to “coding camp” (or something similar), as Kurtzleben argues, rather than to get a low-skilled first job?
Do you think it’s important for a person to work a wide range of jobs at the beginning of their career—including, perhaps, low-skill retail jobs—merely to get a wide range of experiences and understand what those jobs are like?
The question of when children should begin working is as old as human society.
An early job is an important preparation for a young person to eventually enter the workforce. However, the relative value of an early job as compared to more schooling or some other kind of training will depend on the interests on each person.
For young people at risk of being drawn into criminal violence, a job can potentially be a crime-fighting tool. Many criminal justice experts advocate for youth jobs programs as an effective crime deterrent, particularly in the summer months.