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TEENS AND JOBS: BAD FOR EACH OTHER? New reports contend that many jobs do teen-agers more harm than good, despite a strong argument that they teach responsibility and a sense of ethics

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 1986

Needham, Mass.

IT is noon on a crisp autumn Saturday, and at Register 3 in Roche's supermarket, 18-year-old Betty Shaw has just begun her workday. ``Hi, how are you?'' she says, greeting a customer. Then, picking up a loaf of bread, she sweeps it across an electronic scanner that beeps as it reads the universal price code. Bread sweep-beep, cheese sweep-beep, chicken sweep-beep, milk sweep-beep -- the rhythmic motion becomes almost robotic as item after item passes through her practiced hands.

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``That's $14.12,'' she tells the shopper. A teen-age boy bags the woman's groceries and carries them out, and another customer steps up to the register.

For the next seven hours Betty, a high school senior, will repeat this scenario dozens of times. During her 2 years here, work has become as routine a part of her life as school, and she is philosophical about what she does.

``It's not a terrible job,'' she says during an interview on a day off. ``I used to be sick of it, but now I get more money because I've been there for such a long time. I relate well to the customers and the people I work with, so it doesn't really bother me.''

Ask any random sampling of teen-agers about their jobs and the responses are likely to be similar -- occasionally enthusiastic, but more often matter-of-fact: ``Yeah, sure, it's OK.'' But they like the money, the activity kills time, and a job provides a sort of independence -- motivating factors that have put a majority of high school juniors and seniors into the work force. Teen-agers, in fact, now form the backbone of many suburban businesses during evening and weekend hours.

Once largely the province of the needy, teen-age work has become an accepted, even expected rite of passage for middle- and upper-middle-class students as well. School can teach the three R's, the reasoning goes, but it takes a job to teach the fourth R: responsibility.

Now the rite of passage is beginning to get so-so reviews from adults as well as adolescents, and the revisionists have arrived. In a new book, ``When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment'' (Basic Books, $17.95), Ellen Greenberger and Laurence Steinberg argue that teen-age employment is not always the benign experience it has been taken for.

Jobs, they say, often acquire precedence over school, interfering with homework and keeping students from extracurricular activities. Even the family dinner hour, an increasingly endangered species, is affected as teens race off to scoop ice cream, flip burgers, pump gas, and stock shelves. If paid work becomes too dominant, the authors caution, adolescents ``may be bypassing the equally rigorous, but unpaid, work of growing up -- work that requires exploration, experimentation, and introspection.''

In addition, working teens may be susceptible to what one researcher calls ``premature affluence.'' No longer required to contribute part of their earnings to family coffers, middle- and upper-middle-class students often spend their paychecks on highly disposable items such as records, cosmetics, and faddish clothes. Rather than learning the value of a dollar, they learn the habits of consumerism.

But the main problem, according to Ms. Greenberger and Mr. Steinberger, lies in the kinds of jobs now available to young people. Unlike teen-agers of earlier generations who worked in crafts, factory, and farm positions, today's adolescents are overwhelmingly clustered in retail and service jobs. This ``new adolescent workplace,'' the authors maintain, offers little preparation for adult occupations.