Why Teens Should not Work

That first job is akin to becoming an adult.  Both teens and their parents look forward to the day Junior is driving off to work instead of hanging around the house.  And landing a paying job is the ticket to that other rite of passage, owning your first set of wheels.

Learning responsibility, dependability, managing money and work ethics are values of early job experiences.  But the emphasis on school-to-work in the past twenty years has its downside as well.  Very few teens land jobs with skills relevant to their career aspirations. Teen workers are motivated not by the career-developing skills they could acquire, but rather by the disposable cash in their pockets.

That disposable income is a distraction, and a dangerous one for many teens.  Most high school students spend their money on clothes, cars and entertainment.  Few use their earnings to contribute to household expenses and very little is put aside for college.  While their parents may have little left over once the bills are paid, teen workers enjoy higher disposable income than their parents, higher in fact than they can expect during most of their adult lives.

Imagine giving up hundreds of dollars in disposable income -- money for car payments, gas, and insurance but also for clothes, expensive shoes, music and video games.  Imagine trading all that in for four years of pauperhood in college: no car, no money, no new clothes, no pizza, no jingle jangle in your pocket.

And financial aid? If a student worked for pay the year before applying, the folks who calculate his eligibility assume he's saved every penny for college -- pennies he's expected to contribute and that reduce his financial aid eligibility.

Research tells us that for too many teens, an after school job means less likelihood of enrolling in college or finishing once there.
In research conducted over 20 years, students who worked more than 15 hours per week had lower grades, did less homework, had higher dropout rates and were less likely to go to college than students who worked under 15 hours per week. 1997 study by the National Research Center for Vocational Education at the University of California, Berkeley (Source)
The typical senior in high school works 17 hours per week and two-thirds of high school students ages 16 and older have held jobs.  The data however is interesting.

42% of all 16 and 17-year olds held after school jobs
45% of boys worked, while just 38% of girls did
White students (50%) were twice as likely to work after school as black and Hispanic students (both at 24%).
Students from poor families were less likely to hold after school jobs than middle class teens and students whose parents attended college were more likely to work after school. (Source)
The research indicates there may be some minor benefits to working less than 10 hours per week but those quickly turn to negatives as the hours increase.

Teens who work more than 20 hours per week are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, less likely to complete their homework, and have lower grades and poorer attendance (Source).  Any high school teacher can tell stories about students who can't stay awake in class because of their late work hours.  And extracurricular activities -- which have been shown to enhance students' grades, graduation rates and chances of going to college -- are out of reach for those with after school jobs.

It's hard to look at your seemingly unambitious, irresponsible offspring and not think the discipline of going to work would be good for him.  But the research shows that for long-term benefits -- more engagement in school, choosing more rigorous coursework, graduating on time and choosing college after graduation -- a job is more likely a deterrent.  He'll have 40 years or more of work ahead of him.  Right now his job is school.

See also:  The Non-Curriculum