School & District Management

Book Suggests Work Doesn’t Harm Teenagers’ Studies

February 19, 2003 6 min read
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It’s a question educators and parents often ask: Is it a good idea for high school students to work at a fast-food joint or clothing store after school? Is that a wise use of teenagers’ time during such formative and demanding years?

University of Minnesota researcher Jeylan T. Mortimer has gone to great lengths to examine the issue. She and her colleagues have tracked some former high-schoolers in St. Paul since they entered 9th grade in 1987. Drawing largely on that research, her new book, Working and Growing Up in America, provides a detailed look at teenagers’ paid work experiences and the ripple effects on their lives.

Part-time work during adolescence—as long as the hours are not excessive—doesn’t harm students’ grades, she argues, and can offer some real benefits. Those pluses include acquiring work and social skills, and even enjoying enhanced academic success later in life.

Ms. Mortimer, a sociologist, is the principal investigator on the Youth Development Study, which has kept up with some 1,000 randomly selected people since they entered high school. Data have been collected by annually surveying the young people, and parents were questioned twice during their children’s high school years.

While the research is ongoing, the book, published this month by Harvard University Press, taps into the material available through 1998, seven years after the students graduated from high school.

Continuing Debate

Stephen F. Hamilton, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., suggests that the book draws on some rich research.

“I don’t know of any other study that has followed the same group of young people for anything like this amount of time with a special focus on their work experience and how that fits into the other things that they’re doing,” he said.

Among other issues, Ms. Mortimer weighs in on the long-standing debate over whether employment exacts an academic price from students. She relied on students’ reported grades, as well as questionnaires from parents.

"[W]e found no evidence that working either promotes or interferes with school performance,” she writes.

Much of the controversy over youth employment, she adds, “rests on a largely untested assumption: that work competes for teenagers’ time with more beneficial activities.”

She tested that assumption in St. Paul, and didn’t find it very persuasive. "[E]mployment does not necessarily squeeze out the productive activities of homework, extracurricular involvements, and family work,” she writes. “Indeed, the vast majority of employed youth do not sacrifice these activities.”

Thanks to the longitudinal nature of the St. Paul study, Ms. Mortimer was able to probe the academic effects of teenage work over the longer term. She found that teenagers who worked moderate hours during high school benefited later.

“Most important,” she writes, “those who were ‘steady’ workers during high school, employed almost all months of observation but working less than 20 hours per week, had pronounced educational success, especially with respect to four-year college degrees.”

The benefits appeared particularly strong, she found, for students who appeared to have had relatively low educational promise when they entered high school.

Mr. Hamilton from Cornell said there is general agreement among researchers that too much work—generally more than 20 hours a week during the school year—is a bad idea. But he said Ms. Mortimer’s emphasis on combining moderate hours with “steady” employment offers a new twist.

“Young people who work in that pattern do better than those who work more ... and those who don’t work,” Mr. Hamilton said. “And that’s something we didn’t know before she did this work.”

The book suggests that teenagers who are employed during high school may even have an advantage in finding career-relevant work later. And it probes some of the harder-to-quantify impacts of work.

When they were high school juniors, most students in the study agreed that their jobs helped them learn to take responsibility for their work. Many also reported learning how to manage money, how to be on time, and how to get along with others.

In an interview, Ms. Mortimer argued that a key contribution of her research is that it examines variations in the quality of work experiences young people have.

“One has to consider many things about the work experience,” she said. “It’s not sufficient to know just how many hours an adolescent is working.”

She looked, for instance, at the learning opportunities afforded at jobs, the stresses on young workers, and their relationships with co-workers.

Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, said he agrees with Ms. Mortimer on some points, such as the notion that the quality of students’ jobs is important to consider.

But he believes beneficial jobs for teenagers are scarce. He co-wrote an influential book in the 1980s, When Teenagers Work: The Social and Psychological Costs of Teenage Employment, that offered a sharp critique of the practice.

Mr. Steinberg cautioned that he had not read Ms. Mortimer’s book, but was generally familiar with her research in St. Paul.

‘Compared to What?’

“I think where we disagree is that her optimism about the benefits of work focuses on the experiences kids have in good jobs,” he said. “And my skepticism about the benefits of work is based on the observation that very few kids actually have those kinds of jobs.”

There is a “bigger issue” behind the debate, Mr. Steinberg argued, noting that American students work far more hours than teenagers in many other countries.

“Maybe the reason that you don’t see much effect on grades is that our schools don’t demand very much of kids,” he said.

The fundamental question to consider when discussing whether students ought to work, he argued, is: “Compared to what?”

“I can think of a lot of things I’d rather have kids do than wrapping hamburgers,” he said. “But if the alternative is getting high or stumbling around shopping malls, then I’d rather have them wrapping hamburgers.”

But Ms. Mortimer maintains that even fast-food jobs often hold some value.

“We might look upon youth jobs, from an adult point of view, as menial,” she said. “But from the point of view of the novice worker, this job might provide an opportunity to kind of test out how you perform ... whether you can operate in a work environment.”

Jobs teach young people how to manage their time and get along with other people, she argues.

Benjamin D. Jennell, a senior at Pentucket Regional High School in West Newbury, Mass., works at a farm every Saturday. He does everything from delivering hay shavings and fertilizer to plowing snow.

“I like it because it’s outdoors—it’s fun,” he said. “It’s never the same thing every day.”

He said the work hours don’t interfere with schoolwork or other pursuits. Before he took the job, he worked for about a year at a restaurant busing tables. He was far less keen on that job, largely because it became monotonous.

“It was the same thing [every day],” he said. “There was no change in it.”

Ms. Mortimer suggests that switching jobs during high school is probably a good idea.

“When we ask, ‘What job is better than another job?,’ the answer to that question changes as young people grow older,” she said. “Just sticking with the first job may not be the best strategy.”

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