Winter 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

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Teen Employment


Patricia Tanner Nelson
Family and Child Development Specialist
University of Delaware-Newark

Stephen F. Hamilton
Associate Professor, Department of
Human Development and Family Studies
Cornell University- Ithaca
New York

Almost two-thirds of today's high school students hold part-time jobs, and nearly all students have a job before graduating. Researchers are reevaluating the rosy perspective they once held on teen employment. Although they still believe that jobs can help teens learn to manage their time and earn money, educators and psychologists are concluding that, in many cases, teen jobs do more to foster bad grades than to advance the work ethic.

Flipping hamburgers or bagging groceries not only detracts from studies but also provides money for goods that teenagers don't need-including drugs and alcohol-and gives them a jaded view of work.1

As the service sector has expanded, many parttime, low-skill jobs have been created for teens. The largest employers (fast-food restaurants and grocery stores) often expect teens to work irregular hours on short notice - a pattern that plays havoc with good study habits. While working too many hours is a concern for many youth, unemployment is a serious problem for others. Periodic unemployment doesn't appear to harm a youth's long-term employment prospects-in fact, this situation is a normal consequence of the short-term jobs designed especially for youth. Serious harm accrues to those who stay unemployed for more than a year, and then are unable to find stable jobs after age 20. Those affected in this way are disproportionately minority, poor, and high school dropouts.2 Because of the declining youth population, firms in the future can be expected to focus more attention on job training.

It's in businesses' self-interest to get involved in job training: As we create record numbers of jobs and, at the same time, fend with a growing labor shortage, demand for qualified entry-level workers will intensify. And many workers won't have the skills for the new information-age jobs.3

Despite the danger of working too many hours in routine jobs, many teenagers find working a source of satisfaction because they can earn money, take responsibility, and be treated as adults. These guidelines are suggested to help make their work a positive experience:

Parents should encourage teens in school to work no more than 15-20 hours a week in jobs that will help them learn important lessons for the future. Parents should discuss and alert teens to some of the negative consequences of excessive work hours: poor school performance; increased use of alcohol, tobacco, and drugs; and stealing and lying on the job.4 Parents and teachers should monitor the ways teens spend their money.

Extension professionals working with youth and their families can convey these research findings and encourage employers, parents, and teachers to work together to create teen employment experiences that will build the foundation for a lifetime of positive work habits and attitudes.


  1. A. Kotlowitz. "The Fruits of Teen Labor: Bad Grades, Profligacy and a Jaded View of Working?" The Wall Street Journal, May 27, 1986, p. 29.
  2. R. B. Freeman and D. A. Wise, eds., The Youth Labor Market Problem: It's Nature, Causes and Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) and P. Osterman, Getting Started: The Youth Labor Market (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1980).
  3. John Naisbitt, Trend Letter, IV (May 29, 1986), 1.
  4. L. Steinberg, "The Varieties and Effects of Work During Adolescence," in Advances in Developmental Psychology, M. E. Lamb, A. L. Brown, and B. Rogoff, eds. (Hillsdale, New York: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1984).