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Teens work to balance school and jobs

Worsnop, R.L. (1990, August 31). Teens work to balance school and jobs. Editorial Research Reports, 1, p. 494.


An increasing number of American teenagers today work after school. Experts and parents believe that the work experience is valuable; it teaches young people discipline, responsibility, and the value of money while giving them a head start in finding a niche in the adult employment market. However, educators and public officials are voicing increasing concern over the types of jobs teenagers perform. They claim that most after-school jobs require few skills that will prove useful after high school or college. In addition, they feel that teenagers spend too much time at work and not enough time with their schoolwork. Other experts say that there is no clear relationship between the number of hours that teens work and their study habits.

The percentage of teenagers ages 16-19 holding a full or part-time job in 1989 was 47.5%, up from 41.5% in 1983. These jobs vary widely in scope and performance criteria, but some experts maintain that the work teenagers perform today generally does not prepare them for the future. Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg write, in When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment, "Wrapping hamburgers at the local fast-food franchise is less likely to lead to a management position in the food service industry than is a master’s degree in business administration...Today...the best preparation a young employee can bring to a new position is...a strong educational background and an ability to learn new skills. The work experience one accrues as a unlikely to link up directly to a similar adult career." Greenberger and Steinberg also question teenagers’ motives for working. They claim that greed is the motivating force—not financial need. Working teens "are supporting their lifestyles," says Steinberg. While some save their earnings for college or other necessities, others spend it on cars, designer clothing, tickets to rock concerts, compact-disc players, or other luxury items. Other experts disagree with these claims, citing that teens work after school due to a lack of interest in school. Many of these individuals have no interest in college and derive greater satisfaction from working, especially when they have something to show for it at the end of the week (i.e., money). "Many young people find work developmentally more satisfying and more fulfilling (than school)," says Jeffrey F. Newman, executive director of the National Child Labor Committee. "In those cases, I’m not sure that we as a society want to be saying that school is a better place (for those youngsters to be)."

Over the past twenty-five years, panels have discussed and recommended programs for helping young people make the transition from school to work. A 1973 report by the Panel on Youth of the President’s Science Advisory Committee recommended pilot programs "involving a much more intimate intermixture of school and work." The National Panel on High School and Adolescent Education asserted in 1976 that work experience would help bridge the generation gap. "Only in the last 25 years has the majority of teenagers, through high school attendance, been increasingly separated from significant contact with older adults, other than parents and teachers...In prolonging youth’s dependence, the schools, inadvertently, have become social ‘aging vats’ that have isolated adolescents and delayed their opportunity to learn adult roles, work habits and skills."

Abuse of child labor laws has caused many individuals to advocate fewer work hours for teenagers. The U.S. Department of Labor has staged a nationwide crackdown on violators. A strike force found more than 15,500 minors working in conditions outlawed by federal law. Most of the allegations involved teens working later or longer hours than permitted. One example of the alleged violators targeted by the Labor Department was Burger King. Falling in line with the federal government, states are considering bills that limit working hours and attempt to regulate the employment of children. Such efforts unnerve some in the business community. They warn that if the campaign goes too far, it could have an adverse effect on the hiring of teenagers—especially those who need jobs.

The increasing demand for teenage workers is due to the shift toward a service oriented economy. In the past, employers tended to negatively view teenage employment. Parents shared these views. A 1979 book on youth employment summed the middle class parental consensus, "...everyone ‘knows’ that it pays to go to school in terms of future careers and earnings. And everyone ‘knows’ that teenagers are really too immature to carry adult responsibilities." Recently, however, employers and parents consider the issue to be more benign. Flexible schedules enable teens to strike a rough balance between academics and jobs. Employers specializing in secondary jobs, such as fast-food outlets, are eager to hire teens because the teenage market enables them to draw upon a pool of unskilled, low-wage labor. Yet, concerns exist in this light. There is a shrinking pool of young people from which to draw and there are many in the labor pool with poor qualifications, even for the most basic work. Compounding the problem is the apparent reluctance of employers to hire adolescents for career oriented ‘primary’ jobs; jobs characterized by high wages, pleasant working conditions, job security, fairness in the application of work rules, and above all, chances for advancement from within the company.

Experts debate youth employment. The prevailing view is that carefully chosen and closely supervised jobs help young people in numerous ways. Greenberger and Steinberg tend to disagree in their book. Their findings conclude that extensive part-time employment during the school year may undermine the student’s education. It may also lead to less accumulation of savings and greater acquisition of frivolous products and services, promote some forms of delinquent behavior, and lead to increased cynicism. The typical teenage workplace is an ‘age-segregated’ environment that does not contribute to the maturation process of the teenager. Rather, "involvement in a job may not advance the transition to adulthood so much as prolong youngsters’ attachment to the peer culture." Greenberger and Steinberg also conclude that after-school work impairs classroom performance and that working also does not allow enough time for exploration of better, more adult jobs that do not offer pay or for discovering academic and extracurricular interests. Work interferes with psychosocial development in adolescence. They also express concern at the spending habits of today’s working teenagers. A small minority use part of their earnings for family expenses or saving for future education. Rather, the fruits of their labor are spent on immediate personal needs and activities. Teenage work has become a distinctively individualistic phenomenon giving rise the term, "premature affluence." These individuals will not be able to sustain their levels of discretionary spending once they have to provide for their own necessities.

Some experts disagree with these findings; they feel that the correlation between after-school work and academic performance is inconclusive. John H. Bishop, an economist at Cornell states, "The problem is not that people work instead of studying; the problem is they don’t study, period. The kids who work also don’t study." Jeffrey Newman of the National Child Labor Committee feels that kids who work use the money for two things: to contribute to their families or to buy things that they think are important in their lives. "It (money) makes them feel like grown-up people. And many kids who work do so because it gives them an identity and a self-respect that they don’t get anywhere else," he said. Work gives them the opportunity to use their talents to build self respect. Service jobs, says Newman, involve camaraderie, learning, discipline, customer relations, respect for supervision, and training opportunities.

The authors discuss the role of schools in preparing students for the adult working world. E. Norton Grubb, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, stated, "A related conflict involves independence and dependence: Youth are being prepared for independence, but in age-segregated institutions that function by limiting...independence." One popular suggestion has been for the United States to adopt a European-style apprenticeship system for acclimating young people to the labor market. This system is credited by many; in fact, West Germany touts one of the most highly skilled workforces in the world. Many wonder if such a system could be successfully implemented in America.

Hiring standards are increasing across the employment spectrum. Companies are searching for more knowledgeable workers who can read, reason, learn new tasks on their own, and deal tactfully with the public. Whether the American public—and U.S. schools—can provide enough workers capable of meeting these requirements remains to be seen. Two reports prepared by the William T. Grant Foundation Commission on Work, Family, and Citizenship declare that in the future, the nation may be divided by levels of education instead by race or geography. This is because a highly technological society offers more opportunity for prosperity to those with advanced skills; those with less tend to scramble for unsteady part-time, low-paying jobs. Regarding the youth employment problem, the commission concluded, "Few institutions acting along...have the capacity to respond with the full range of supports needed by young people seeking to make a successful transition (from school) to a career." Multiple services are needed to replace the current patchwork of support services. An example of this type of concerned effort is found in the passage of the GI Bill in the 1940s—one of the best investments in American prosperity.


  1. Is the increasing occurrence of working teenagers an actual concern or is it imagined?
  2. What are the perceived advantages and disadvantages of teens working? Are the benefits greater than the disadvantages?
  3. What role, if any, does education play in preparing teenagers to enter the adult working world?
  4. What can ease or aid the transition of teens from the age-segregated institutions of learning (i.e., schools) to the adult workplace?
  5. What can help teenagers balance academics and work?


  1. This article is relevant to parents, teachers, and young people alike. It is an issue not only currently affecting young people, but conceivably affecting the future of individuals and the future of America. The importance lies in not only being aware, but also in doing something about the situation.
  2. Teenagers working and developing the skills to enter the adult workplace can be considered a "rite of passage." This article suggests that teenagers need help in coping with the added responsibilities of employment and in bridging the gaps between home, work, and school. Preparing and helping teens to adapt will enable them to become productive and well-adjusted members of society.
  3. Are jobs that teenagers have today an honest investment in their future or are they simply exploitive? Do jobs today help teenagers develop a positive attitude toward work? Are employed kids a pawn used fulfill the consumer mentality advocated by media?
  4. Young people need to be taught how to balance needs and wants. Society, through media, brainwashes kids.
  5. Those working with kids must uphold the responsibility to bring up children as responsible adults. Parents, teachers, counselors, and youth leaders must enforce boundaries that afford kids the freedom of being young. It is important to not "rush" them onto adulthood.
Keith Chrisanthus cCYS