RECENT REPORTS of widespread child labor law infractions by employers of teenagers are stirring public concern, but the more important question is whether, and how much, our children should be working at all. When teenagers work a great deal -- even within the limits imposed by current legislation -- they perform worse in school, report higher rates of drug and alcohol use, and develop cynical attitudes toward work itself.
The idea that work is good for teenagers -- no matter how miserable or time-consuming their jobs -- is held with a deep moral conviction comparable to that surrounding the joys of motherhood or the benefits of apple pie. This idea has its origins in images of diligent adolescent apprentices working side-by-side with caring adult mentors.
Although the workplace has changed, it is still widely held that paid work is a character-building enterprise for young people -- even more so than schooling. Yet studies indicate that the sorts of characters work builds in the current workplace aren't exactly what most of us have in mind. Teenagers who work long hours in today's routinized adolescent workplace of mostly dead-end jobs are more cynical about the value of hard work and more tolerant of improprieties on the job than their peers who work less or not at all. The more teenagers work, the more likely they are to endorse such attitudes as "People who work harder at their jobs than they have to are a little bit crazy," and "People who break a few laws to make a profit aren't doing anything I wouldn't do in their position." Given that many young people work for employers who wink at child labor regulations, it isn't surprising that one of the first lessons learned at work is that laws are meant to be violated.
According to recent estimates, more than two-thirds of all American high school juniors and seniors, and about half of all sophomores, hold jobs during the school year. Government statistics indicate that a large proportion of employed high school students work more than 20 hours per week. Contrary to popular wisdom, the vast majority of these student workers are not from disadvantaged backgrounds, but are middle class.
Ours is the only major industrialized nation that encourages student employment among college-bound teenagers. Whereas Japanese, German and Swedish youngsters spend their afternoons and evenings studying, ours are flipping burgers and staffing checkout counters. We often hear about our loss of "competitiveness,", our high rate of consumption relative to saving, and the declining competence of our workers. Yet we continue to encourage our adolescents to place the short-term goal of earning and spending money above the long-term goal of investing in educational activities likely to contribute to the development of a skilled and innovative workforce.
Nearly five years ago, newspapers around the country reported on research -- including our own -- documenting the adverse impact of intensive employment on teenagers' development and education. More recently, a number of large-scale surveys of adolescents by investigators at Stanford University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Michigan, intensive case studies of individual high schools, and anecdotal reports from teachers around the country have buttressed the view that the widespread employment of high school students is taking its toll on our schools and contributing to the high rate of drug and alcohol use among teenagers. (The only major challenge to this conclusion comes from a study funded by the restaurant industry, a major employer of teenagers.)
Today, high school is all too often something that American adolescents fit into their work schedules, rather than the reverse. And, contrary to public opinion, the majority of student workers do not save the bulk of their earnings for college, but instead spend most of their wages on cars, fashions, stereo equipment, drugs and alcohol.
There is now broad consensus among educators and scholars that teenagers who work more than 15 or 20 hours per week, especially those in high-stress jobs, are at risk for problems in school and heightened drug and alcohol use. Indeed, if anything, the newer studies indicate that our previously recommended cutoff of 20 hours per week for juniors and seniors may be too generous. For example, a recent study of some 4,000 Wisconsin and California student workers indicates that rates of drug and alcohol use increase markedly after students exceed only 10 hours of work per week.
While the argument to limit students' work hours has been well-received among educators, it has generated considerable controversy, anger and incredulity outside the educational community. The good news is that many school districts and several states are reexamining their practices and policies concerning student employment. Unfortunately, most statutes currently on the books permit students to work much more than is probably in their best interest. And as if this weren't troublesome enough, the major employers of teenagers constantly lobby Washington to relax existing restrictions on the hours children are permitted to work. They would rather our 14-year-olds work longer hours, and for lower wages to boot.
Because today's headlines about child labor law violations conjure up images of turn-of-the-century children in sweatshops, they are too easily dismissed as both anomalous and anachronistic. We must not lose sight of the fact, however, that children and teenagers continue to be exploited in the workplace. Moreover, by permitting our adolescents to compromise their schooling and health in the pursuit of self-indulgent consumerism, we continue to violate the spirit of adolescence, not only the letter of the law.
Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, and Ellen Greenberger, professor of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, are co-authors of "When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment" (Basic Books).