More Students Are Juggling Conflicting Demands of School, Work

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Seventeen-year-old Eric Spencer spends more time at his after-school job than he does in school.

Earning $4 an hour, the Kensington, Md., high-school senior works up to 39 hours a week in a fast-food restaurant, handling everything from the cash register and grill to the floor mop.

He uses his substantial earnings, he says, to buy "things''--the various commodities his friends have, and stores in the swank shopping mall where he works display in their windows.

But the price, he adds, includes exhaustion. Falling asleep in class has become a frequent occurrence.

Eric's "get up and go'' might once have been admired as a useful adjunct to his education. A little work, the popular wisdom held, could teach young people the "the value of a dollar.''

Instead of teaching responsibility, useful skills, and "the value of money,'' psychologists and educators are concerned that too much work, too soon, may foster bad grades, bad habits, and stifle initiative among many high-school students.

But, like countless other working teen-agers today, Eric views his workplace lessons differently.

"You learn how to take a break,'' he says during a pause in business, "and you learn how tired you can get.''

That somewhat jaded perception of the work ethic is one of a host of considerations causing some psychologists and educators to take a second look at the once-venerable tradition of after-school work.

Instead of teaching the "value of a dollar,'' these experts say, too much work, too soon, may be fostering bad grades and materialistic values. Instead of teaching responsibility and useful skills, the highly routinized jobs open to the young may be simply stifling initiative.

"Basically, we think it can get out of hand,'' says Laurence Steinberg, a University of Wisconsin professor of child and family studies. "The more kids work, the worse off they are.''

Flocking to Jobs

Such doubts have emerged during a decade when young people have joined the workforce in record numbers. According to one estimate, two out of three high-school students now hold part-time jobs.

"When all your friends have a job, you don't really have anything to do anyway,'' explains Nikki MacDonald, a Gaithersburg (Md.) High School senior. She says she began working three years ago for spending money, and because she found herself having a lot of extra time after her school day ended.

Jerald G. Bachman, who surveys more than 6,600 teen-agers every year for the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan, estimates that one-third of the male seniors he polls, and one-quarter of the females, work more than 20 hours a week. On average, they earn more than $200 a month, he says.

Those numbers represent a dramatic increase from 1940, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping count of teen-age workers. In that year, according to Mr. Steinberg, only 9 percent of the 14- to 16-year-old population worked, and even fewer--2.4 percent--were working and going to school at the same time.

Inflation, the growing demand for service-sector workers, and other, more subtle social forces combined in the 1970's to accelerate the movement of teen-agers into the workforce, experts say.

Early in that decade, the work of three national education panels had encouraged the flow, they note, by concluding that school and family do little to help adolescents cross the bridge from their own isolated world into adulthood. The panels suggested that work might be a good way to ease the transition.

"I think we've taken a good idea and allowed it to mushroom into something that isn't really benefiting our students,'' says Ted Cunio, superintendent of schools for Minnesota's White Bear Lake district.

He became concerned about the issue more than a year ago, Mr. Cunio says, after a survey in his district revealed that 80 percent of the high-school juniors and seniors were working more than 26 hours a week.

"That's less time for--not only learning--but also participating in the school environment,'' says the superintendent, who adds that he often tries to convince parents to limit the hours their children work.

In Florida, a similar survey by the Pinellas County schools revealed that 37 percent of the high-school students who worked were often too tired to go to school or fell asleep in class.

Complaints from educators in both those states have prompted legislators to take action. The Florida legislature last year passed a law limiting both the number and the lateness of the hours teen-agers may work. Another bill, which seeks to prohibit 16-year-olds from working past 11 P.M., is currently being considered by the Minnesota legislature.

And in North Carolina, a legislative committee late last week was scheduled to take up a similar proposal.

Conflicting Demands

With young people staying up all hours to work, says Linda McNeil, assistant professor of education at Harvard University, some teachers have lowered their expectations for students.

"Teachers feel an enormous conflict with kids' priorities,'' she says. In a 2-year study that involved close observation of classroom behavior, Ms. McNeil says she saw teachers drop their standards gradually. "Maybe a teacher used to assign research papers, and then it got to the point that so many students were putting them together at the last minute she decided to accept a bibliography instead.''

'Premature Affluence'

Mr. Bachman of the University of Michigan points out that most students are putting in such long hours not out of necessity, but to earn spending money. Unlike previous generations, who worked to help out their family or earn money for college, teen-agers today typically are working for money to spend on clothes, cars, stereos, movies, and other consumer goods.

"Go to any typical suburban high school and look at the student parking lot,'' says Mr. Cunio of White Bear Lake.

'Look at the students' cars out there. They're expensive cars, and in most cases they're not paid for by Mom and Dad.''

Ms. McDonald, the Gaithersburg, Md., student, confirms that perception. She says she began working three years ago with one goal in mind: earning enough money to buy a car.

"When you turn 16, you see all your friends getting cars,'' says the high-school senior. Now the proud owner of a Volkswagen Rabbit, she continues to work to meet the monthly payments and insurance bills.

The emphasis on material possessions worries Mr. Bachman, who has coined a phrase to describe the phenomenon: "premature affluence.''

Teen-agers, he says, often feel free to spend all of their income on discretionary items because they have no other expenses for "the basics,'' such as housing or food. As a result, they are often unprepared for the "real world,'' he maintains.

"They may develop a pattern of spending that may be difficult to sustain later on,'' says the Michigan researcher. "Adults may say it's important for teen-agers to learn the value of a dollar. The problem is, they may be learning the wrong value.''

Moreover, the University of Michigan surveys have found that the more hours students work, the more likely they are to use drugs and alcohol. Part of the reason, Mr. Bachman suggests, may be that regular paychecks make it easier to buy such items.

He adds, however, that "some of the behaviors [recorded in the annual survey] tended to have a long history and were there before different work experiences arose.''

Cynicism, Boredom

Other researchers contend that the vaunted American work ethic has become a casualty, rather than a byproduct, of youthful job experiences.

The University of Wisconsin's Mr. Steinberg and Ellen Greenberger, a professor of social ecology at the University of California at Irvine, found that working high-school students in Orange County, Calif., became more cynical about the pleasures of productive labor after they had worked for a while. And only 4 percent of the working students they studied said they went "beyond the call of duty'' in their jobs.

"You've got your paycheck and maybe once in a while you get a pat on the back,'' says Eric Spencer, the Kensington, Md., student, describing the benefits of his fast-food job. "And that's about it.''

Psychologists who have studied the teen-age workers say that kind of attitude is more common among those whose jobs consist of monotonous tasks, such as piling lettuce and tomatoes endlessly onto hamburgers, or stuffing groceries into paper bags.

Such jobs--which often go unsupervised by adults--can lead to boredom and a bad image of the working world, experts say.

"At McDonald's, they have pictures on the cash register,'' Ms. McNeil of Harvard points out. "Not only do you not have to know how to add to operate them, but you don't even have to know how to read.''

Points of Controversy

These and other "downside'' aspects of teen-age work are contained in the much-publicized When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment, written by Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Greenberger. Published late last year, the book has heated up a debate that was emerging in academic circles before its publication.

"What bothers me about their studies is that they generalize to the youth population as a whole,'' complains Bryna Shore Fraser of the National Institute for Work and Learning.

With support from the William T. Grant Foundation's Commission on Youth and America's Future, Ms. Fraser and another researcher, Ivan Charner, recently reviewed more than 50 studies on teen-agers and work. Their completed paper will be released this fall.

"What we found is that there are a lot of gaps in the information we do have,'' Ms. Fraser says. "Much of the literature is contradictory.''

In her own research, Ms. Fraser has found that the "work ethic is alive and well.'' She asked working students: "If you had enough money so that you didn't have to work for the rest of your life, would you still work?'' Roughly 80 percent of the teen-agers, she reports, answered "yes.''

Donna Sturges, a 15-year-old sophomore at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., gives a response typical of adolescents who have gained from their work experience when she says, "It's given me a sense of responsibility.'' She works 13 to 24 hours a week as a sales clerk in a sporting-clothes store, and, so far, she says, the job has not affected her grades.

"If most people thought sending their kids to work was going to harm them, they would have stopped doing it a long time ago,'' argues Denise Gottfredson, who studied more than 6,000 working teen-agers several years ago for the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University. She says she found no evidence that working encouraged delinquent behavior in teen-agers.

Referring to the studies by Ms. Greenberger and Ms. Steinberg, she says: "I think what they've got is kids who spend less time on their homework, and they do have some real findings on some attitudes. But when it comes to behaviors, the actual results aren't conclusive.''

She speculates that some students, although they spend less time on their homework, may be working more intensely at it.

Or, as another working Bethesda, Md., high-school senior put it, "It's taught me to ration my time.'' Mebea Aklilu, who works only nine hours a week in a sporting-goods store so that he can participate on his school's soccer team, says, "Before this, I had so much time that the time I spent on my homework was scattered; it was not so concentrated.''

Others have noted, also, that work teaches young people "transferable skills,'' such as how to work under a supervisor, how to report to work on time, how to handle a cash register, or how to deal with the general public.

Making Work 'Meaningful'

The two points on which most experts agree are these: Many students need to limit the amount of time they work, and adults need to make an effort to ensure that the teen-age work experience is meaningful.

The ideal work situation for young people, they agree, would resemble the apprenticeships of an earlier century. Such jobs would put students under the close supervision of adults, who would teach them not only useful skills, but also adult values and work ethics.

And 15 to 20 hours a week, the experts say, is the maximum time that students should put into an after-school job.

"American society has assumed that, once a kid finds a job, our responsibility as a society ends,'' Ms. Fraser notes. "We're leaving a lot up to individual youths, and they're not necessarily up to making those kinds of decisions.''

Adds Mr. Steinberg: "I don't think we're ever going to go back to a situation where kids aren't working during their high-school years ... But parents, schools, and legislators should do their best to make an effort to see that it doesn't get out of hand.''

Vol. 06, Issue 34

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories