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The Circle Bastiat

Loosen the laws, let teens work

When teenagers don't work, they miss out on an important part of growing up

By Douglas FrenchGuest blogger / March 28, 2011

High school students Brittaney Sims, left, Kelsie Taylor, and Blake Manwiller, right, fill out job applications at a teen job fair held at the Swanson Public Library in Omaha, Neb., Monday, March 21, 2011. Are there too many laws restricting teens from having jobs?

Nati Harnik / AP

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Old folks are working and teenagers are laying around doing nothing. It didn’t used to be this way. Kids used to find a job as soon as they had the desire for two very important things: get out of the house and get money in their hands.

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Finding part-time work was a snap. The locally-owned burger shack always needed help, there were plenty of lawns to be mowed, and babies to be watched. But now government makes it tough to employ someone under eighteen and taking a chance on an unproven teenager is expensive. There’s a high national minimum wage and some states set minimum pay even higher than that.

Of course pay is just part of the cost of an employee. There’s FICA and Social Security and local employment taxes and so on. Plus, following the corporate-mandated firing procedures so the employer doesn’t end up in court for sacking someone, is another burden. So the manager for the local franchisee of Arby’s or McDonald’s is more likely to hire the 66-year old from down the street, rather than the 16-year old.

Mr. or Ms. Manager has a job to protect and mortgage to pay, so Mr. Jones with a 40-year track record of showing up on time and really needing to supplement his Social Security check is a surer, safer bet than Danny Jones, who, while seeming bright and enthusiastic, has never held a job and has classes and band to schedule around. Who knows if Danny Boy will stick around?

This dynamic has been at work for a decade. Back in 2000, 34 percent of boys in their mid-teens worked, while 29 percent of senior men were employed, the Wall Street Journal reports. In 2010, fewer than 15 percent of 16 to 17 year old boys were employed, while 34 percent of men aged 60 to 69 were holding down a job.

It’s the same for females. Just a decade ago 35 percent of girls aged 16 and 17 were working, now it’s less than 17 percent.

In big cities like New York, L.A., Chicago and D.C. the situation is worse; only one in ten teens is working.

This of course is terrible for youngsters who don’t gain the experience of on-the-job training, as well as learning to work with a variety of people, be responsible, and learning to budget their time.

But employers are losing out as well. In his fantastic book The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, Robert Epstein writes, “We’re most able to reason clearly when we’re in our teens, and no matter how aggressively we may try to train people of other ages, this basic fact is unlikely to change.”

Young employees not only bring fresh energy to the workplace but new ideas and creativity to employers who are operating in a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before.

Epstein cites numerous research showing that the teen years are the peak of our mental powers. Work by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget indicates that we become capable of formal operational thinking at about age eleven and peak in those abilities at age 15. In his book The measurement of Adult Intelligence, David Wechsler “concluded that the highest ‘mental age’ we can reach is fifteen and a half.” J.C. Raven wrote in the British Journal of Psychology that intelligence peaks at thirteen or fourteen.

Raven writes, “after age thirty, a person’s ability to understand a new method of thinking, adopt new methods of working, and even to adapt to a new environment, steadily decreases.”

Epstein lists dozens of examples of creative and mental prowess of teens going back centuries. But of course, government and unions have worked together to keep kids unemployed and uninspired. With no responsibilities youngsters are infantilized by the many laws restricting young people: curfew laws, tougher driving laws, teen-wage laws, laws curtailing sexual activities, free-speech restrictions at school, censorship of educational activities, dress codes, smoking and drinking laws, ad infinitum.

There are plenty of things that need to be done all of the time. So young and old and in-between have plenty of work to do. Set kids free and let them work miracles.

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