In assessing whether there are benefits to having teens work, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper sifts through an enormous amount of data from two long-running government surveys.
While it can be exceedingly complicated to tease out the answer to a question like this, the researchers make a valiant effort to make sense of the information.
So what did they find? Should you send your kid to the coal mines or what? (kidding, kidding)
The economic benefits of work
I was surprised to discover that the vast majority of students work at some point during high school, and 75% have jobs during part or all of their senior year.
That work also had a palpable effect on kids as they grew into their 20s, according to the report: "Adult wages and weeks worked are typically lowest for those who did not work as students during the academic year and are generally highest for those who worked long hours."
However, those wage benefits have declined significantly over time, both for kids who worked during the school year and those who worked only in summer.
In other words, if you think your high schooler should work because it will help their future earnings, you might be on to something -- but it's not helping as much as it used to.
Interestingly, it doesn't matter if students were college-bound or not. The earnings and tenure benefits apply to everyone.
What about other benefits?
Of course, there are many other reasons you might want your kid to work.
Whether it's teaching responsibility, coping skills for the workplace, or an appreciation for money, you could probably come up with a pretty long list of arguments in favor of teens taking jobs.
The study found that "college completion rates were highest for those who worked relatively short (0-10) hours in their senior year of high school." Of course, you can't tease out cause and effect from that tidbit alone, but it is possible that a bit of work can go a long way.
Looking more broadly, the evidence is mixed. Some researchers have found that a certain amount of work is good for kids, while too much can cause harm both academically and psychologically. An Australian study found that working more hours is generally associated with worse outcomes, unless students are using earnings to save for college.
Doing what's best for the individual
As with most things in life, it seems the "right" answer to the question of whether high school work is good or bad depends primarily on the situation and the child.
If your kid is an energetic powerhouse or desires the independence of paid employment, that's one thing. If he or she would much rather cultivate a talent for a trade or entrepreneurship instead of prepping for a liberal arts degree, your situation might also look different. Family economics, your child's maturity and coping ability, and various other factors could also influence matters.
At heart, it's a matter of assessing what's right for each teen individually -- statistics are incredibly powerful for populations, but, in the end, they can't exactly tell you how to parent your own child.
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