Full Activity, Study Schedules Have Many Teens Just Saying No To Jobs

Percentage of young people in workforce falls in past 20 years

By Barbara Hagenbaugh, USA TODAY
April 7, 2005 — Many teens today are working harder than ever — just not for a paycheck.

Teens are studying more, are taking heavier course loads and are involved in more extracurricular activities than ever before.

But the percentage of teenagers working or looking for work has steadily fallen in the past two decades to the lowest on record. In the last quarter-century, the percentage of teens ages 16 to 19 in the workforce fell 25% to 44% in 2004, based on a median of the monthly participation rate. Although that percentage was a bit higher during the summer — 54% of teens were in the workforce in July — the portion of teens working during the summer months last year was still the lowest on record.

What is in question is whether teens are missing out on important lessons learned from early work experience.

Jeylan Mortimer, a sociology professor and director of the Life Course Center at the University of Minnesota, says her research, which has involved tracking former St. Paul high school students for more than a decade, has found that working moderate amounts during high school was beneficial not just while the students were in school but beyond.

Teens who worked learned key basics, what she calls “generic learning,” such as showing up on time and dealing with supervisors. They also developed stronger self-esteem and other traits that carried beyond their teen years.

“They learned important lessons about handling stressors in the future,” says Mortimer, author of Working and Growing Up in America. “They learned how to deal with people, they developed interpersonal skills, they learned how to overcome shyness.”

But while some economists, sociologists and psychologists say it is important to learn those lessons at an early age, others argue that the type of work teens do generally doesn’t help that much later in life, and working might prove too big a burden on teens as they go through school. If students are focusing their attention on school and other worthwhile activities, their lack of work experience might not be harmful in the long run.

“This could be a good thing,” says Erica Groshen, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York who studies labor market issues. “It could be good for employers and for society as a whole if it means we are getting more and better education for our workers.”

Not enough time
Brian Cavanagh-Strong, 18, of Ann Arbor, Mich., has worked a total of three weeks in his life, but he’s hardly sitting around watching reruns of Friends.

The high school senior gets all A’s and takes a heavy course load, including advanced journalism, advanced Latin poetry, a one-on-one advanced calculus course, and writing. After school, he participates in theater, currently rehearsing two hours a day for his upcoming part in The Crucible, practices jazz piano at least 1 1/2 hours a day in addition to playing in a band, then studies for a few hours.

All of those activities leave little time for work, he says.

“I am doing things after school every day until very late,” Cavanagh-Strong says. “I don’t think employers would be very happy with my time commitment.”

Cavanagh-Strong’s parents give him a monthly allowance for expenses. In return, he works around the house.

For Barbara Tibbetts of Wilmington, Del., it makes more sense for her and her husband to help her son, Will, 16, with expenses than to expect him to find a job. The high school sophomore plays on various sports teams year round and spends a lot of time volunteering.

“We’ve just decided that he’s going to have to devote his time to sports and to school,” she says. “There are so many more pressures on teenagers now than there were when I was a teenager.”

The decline in teens working is not a result of rich kids getting handouts from mom and dad. According to a USA TODAY analysis of the Education Department’s in-depth surveys of high school sophomores, the decline in kids working from 1990 to 2002 was much more pronounced among kids from families whose income ranks in the bottom quarter than those from the highest. Middle-income kids had the greatest likelihood of working in both of the study years.

Pressure to achieve — at school, in sports and in other activities — is one of the key theories for why fewer teens have jobs:

The percentage of teens ages 16 to 19 who are enrolled in school has jumped more than 10 percentage points in the past two decades to 81% in 2003, the most recent Labor Department data show. Summer school is also growing more popular. More than one-third of 16- to-19-year-olds were enrolled in school in July 2004, nearly triple the percentage in July 1989.

While many students both work and go to school, the biggest declines in teens who work are among those in school. Studying the data about a year ago, the New York Fed’s Groshen found that while non-students’ labor-force participation fell 2.5% from March 2000 to March 2003, for students, the drop was a heftier 4.6% .

There is evidence that kids are working harder in school. In 2004, the number of Advanced Placement tests taken by high school students was up 65% from five years earlier, the College Board reports. According to the Education Department data on sophomores, 23% said they spent 10 or more hours on homework per week in 2002, up from 14% in 1990.

The more hours students spent on homework, the less likely they were to have jobs, suggesting those who aren’t working are using extra time to study, not goof off.

“Current students take their studies more seriously than did past generations,” says Dean Strassburger, college coordinator at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School.

College pressure.
With more kids applying to college — the result of a growing teen population and greater interest in college — the pressure of getting in has gotten greater.

The number of high school graduates in recent years has risen to highs last seen in the 1970s, while the number of students enrolling in college has hit record levels and is projected to increase, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Many students think colleges see holding offices in extracurricular groups, such as Spanish Club and band, as more valuable than working six hours a week as a cashier.

Steven Goodman, a Washington, D.C.-based college admissions strategist who helps high school students beef up college applications, says in the heated competition to get into college, work is not high on the minds of parents and kids.

“There are kids who rightly believe that working at McDonalds isn’t getting them anything,” he says.

But Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University outside Washington, D.C., says working can be an important asset on applications.

“It doesn’t sound to anyone like working at the local diner is sexy enough,” he says. “But I’ve read wonderful essays from students who talk about the difference they made in doing their jobs.”

College is costly.
The cost of one year at a private college, including tuition, fees, room, board and other expenses, was $26,854 in the fall, up nearly 6% from the prior year, according to the College Board. The cost for a year at a public, four-year school rose nearly 10% to an average of $10,636. In 2003, costs rose 14% at public colleges and 6% at private colleges.

With costs mounting, the expectation that students can save for college working part time while in high school and make a dent in their expenses has eroded significantly. To some students, it makes more sense to spend the time studying for the SATs rather than working.

Some teens feel that “unless you have to work, it’s not worth it,” says Marta Tienda, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. “Sometimes, it’s about the money.”

Harder to find work
But it could be that while many teens might be choosing not to work, others are finding there are few jobs available for them.

The percentage of people 25 or older without high school diplomas who were working or looking for work, a group often in direct competition with teens for low-skilled jobs, rose for five straight years through 2004. That increase came even though the economy during some of those years was losing jobs.

The percentage of workers 65 or older — many likely seeking part-time jobs, as are teens — was 14.4% in 2004, highest in more than 30 years.

Further, some economists, including those at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies in Boston, argue that an increase in immigration, particularly from undocumented workers, has made it harder for teens to find work.

Teens “do not appear to compete well with undocumented immigrants, especially in ‘under the table’ jobs in the informal labor markets,” the Northeastern researchers wrote in a paper in January.

While some research has shown that working while in school helps students manage their time better, leading them to earn better grades and make more money when they graduate, other studies have shown teen work has no effect and might hurt students when they try to go to school at the same time.

“I personally don’t think it does them much good . . . and it probably does more harm than good,” says Jeffrey Arnett, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland and author of the 2004 book, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.

“They’re not really preparing themselves for adult life by having jobs in high school,” Arnett says. “The content of the work itself is usually mindless drudgery.”

Jerald Bachman, a University of Michigan professor who has been studying youths for three decades as part of the university’s “Monitoring the Future” program, says teen work can also create “premature affluence,” leading to expensive habits, such as buying designer clothing and costly electronics, at a young age. His research has also shown ties between teen work and smoking and drug and alcohol use, although it’s unclear whether the work is to blame or a sign that teens are taking jobs to pay for those products.

But Atlanta honors student Stephanie Binkow, 16, thinks her time working Saturdays at Dolce, a gourmet food, candy and chocolate shop, is well worth it. That’s not because the money helps pay for trips to Starbucks with friends or to fill the gas tank or to save for college.

“I get to see what life will be like when I’m 25 or 30,” the high school sophomore says.

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