Why Aren't Teenagers Working?

It must be hard to be a teenager these days. Societal institutions send them incredibly odd and mixed messages about what a teenager should be doing in order to get on the path to being a productive member of society. On one hand, they are advised

to do all of those responsible things that set them on the path to living a productive life: finish school, say no to drugs and alcohol, ditto for smoking, find hobbies, sports, etc. that keep then out of trouble and find a job to get some real-world experience and earn a little cash for (hopefully) college.

The most difficult thing to accomplish out of the above list is finding a job. When I was in high school (long before the advent of anything ending in dot-com), the local mall was the first place to look for a job. Friends worked there and would refer other friends and soon, half of the high school had a part-time job at a store in or near the mall at one time or another. Everybody who has ever had a teen job remembers it. Even if flipping burgers at the golden arches was not a career choice, it was an experience that taught valuable lessons about respecting authority, getting along with people, learning how to say “do you want fries with that” with enthusiasm and finesse, and earning that first paycheck.

Fast forward to today: at a time when we are encouraging teens to let go of the remote control or the iPOD, hang up the cell phone, get off the couch and go “do something,” teen jobs are few and far between. At 25 percent, the unemployment rate is higher among teenagers (ages 16 to 19) than any other age group. In some areas, the rate is downright shocking. Washington, D.C., for instance has a teen unemployment rate of 50 percent. California comes in a distant second at 34 percent. This is truly a tragedy, but it has been long in the making. Economists have long argued that mandated increases in the minimum wage reduces employment opportunities for teenagers. If a firm must pay a worker $7.25 an hour, then it will likely find a higher-skilled worker, say a 22-year old college student, as opposed to a 17-year old senior. This is a natural response for firms that wish to maximize profits. If they are forced to a pay a $7.25 an hour wage, they are not going to hire an entry-level worker whose value may be — say — $6.00 an hour. This does not imply that teenage workers are not valuable; this is simply one of the ways a business operates if it wants to stay in business. And most do.

If the minimum wage is not enough to discourage the hiring of teenagers, consider the labor laws. They were designed to protect children from intense, physically demanding and dangerous factory and farm work that was common in

the first few decades of the 20th century. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 no doubt changed the landscape of child labor for the better. Seventy years later, however, the work done by teenagers is rarely the back-breaking farm or textile mill work that produced these laws in the first place. But nobody has bothered to review any labor laws that could potentially be outdated for the technology and service economy that is now the United States.

Instead, more rules have been piled on and proposed that would make even the most pro-safety child advocate wary of hiring a teenager. The Department of Labor just issued a 61-page proposal of do’s and dont’s for employing teen workers. They include a ban on texting or using a cell phone on the job for those who operate forklifts, backhoes, man lifts, cranes, and other machinery. The ban includes, “talking, listening, or participating in a conversation electronically; using or accessing the Internet; sending or receiving messages or updates such as text messages, electronic mail messages, instant messages, ‘chats,’ ‘status updates,’ or ‘tweets;’ playing electronic games; entering data into a navigational device or global positioning system (GPS); performing any administrative functions; or using any applications offered by the communication devices.” (The rules don’t apply to hands free iPods without earphones.)

Um…Earth to the Department of Labor… has anybody in that department ever been around a 21st century teenager? Trying to keep them from texting or using a cell phone is like keeping a fox out of the henhouse. Let’s be honest, most adults, including myself, would agree that teens are text-happy and do look as though they have little square electronic contraptions growing out of their ears. And yes, communication tasks can interfere with a worker’s job duties at any age. But the employer is the best person(s) to handle that problem. The teenager who is texting and talking while trying to operate a forklift will likely be unproductive, dangerous and probably not employed at said business for very long. The DOL’s heavy-handed approach to regulating this aspect of teen employment sends the wrong messages: 1) Don’t even bother hiring a teenager because we will fine the heck out of you if you violate one of our many thousands of child labor laws and;l 2) You, as a business, do not have the common sense or intelligence to manage your teenage workers. We know best.

Meanwhile, how are we going to get these kids of the couch and into the world of gainful employment?


Comments (5)

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  1. Buster says:

    I always thought the reason teenagers weren’t working is because they are living at home in their parents’ basement, staying up late watching Star Trek, busy learning to speak Klingon and playing online games with other slackers.

  2. simon says:

    In my experience when the economy tanked many went back to get advanced degrees. After a prolonged sluggish recovery with limited job growth the labor pool is more competitive, and people are willing to take lower level jobs just to have one. There is also a mismatch in skills vs job demand.

    As an employer would you rather hire an individual with a college degree, masters degree, or any other specialized training…or the high school student at basically the same price?

  3. Betty says:

    You hit the nail on the head about the higher minimum wage discouraging employers from hiring. As an employer in a small business I can’t justify paying the current high minimum wage to someone for the months it takes to train them to be any use to the business. Minimum wage was intended to be an entry level wage while training someone to be productive. When they are finally producing and you want to keep them they get more. And by the way, when minimum wage goes up experienced employees expect more. Don’t forget that the take home wage is not the ONLY expense an employer pays for having an employee. You need to look at tax deposites and insurance as well.

  4. Joe says:

    A minimum wage is the lowset hourly, daily or monthly remuneration that employers may legally pay to workers. Equivalently, it is the lowset wage at which workers may sell their labour. Although minimum wage laws are in effect in a great many jurisdictions, there are differences of opinion about the benefits and drawbacks of a minimum wage.

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