Once upon a time, parents would encourage their teenagers to learn the value of hard work by getting a part-time job while still in high school. Conventional wisdom was that students who worked—whether they needed the money or not—gained valuable skills and experience that would later serve their careers.
As you might suspect, in an age of declining good blue-collar jobs and rising minimum wage service employment and when academic achievement and unpaid internships matter more than ever, that wisdom is no longer true. And now a new study confirms it: The benefits of high school employment for kids today are pretty much a wash—especially for men.
To show this, two researchers, Christopher Ruhm at the University of Virginia and Charles Baum at Middle Tennessee State University, looked at statistics from the 1979 and 1997 cohorts of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. The 1979 cohort included more than 12,000 people who were age 14 to 21 in 1979. The 1997 cohort included about 9,000 of your typical millennials: kids who were ages 12 to 16 by 1997. Both groups were later surveyed every year into adulthood.
The study’s main finding was that working during senior year of high school yielded significantly smaller future labor market benefits for the 1997 cohort than it did for the earlier 1979 one, which went to high school two decades earlier:
"Work experience during the high school senior year continues to predict positive effects on labor market outcomes 5-11 years after the expected date of high school graduation, but these beneficial consequences have attenuated fairly dramatically over time," write the authors, who published their findings as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.
As an example, the researchers looked at a high school senior who also worked 20 hours a week. For the 1979 students, this student would have made about 8.3% higher earnings later in his twenties, compared to his peers. For the 1997 students, this person would only make 4.4% higher earnings later in life—and those gains (for unknown reasons) are largely restricted to women and have been diminishing over time.
What’s the major reason for the different outcomes?
Back in 1979, the authors write, senior-year employment predicted a lower probability that a worker would wind up in a low-paid service sector job as an adult. For today’s kids, it was the opposite: Senior-year employment was associated with an increased probability of working in a low-paid service sector job in the future. (This also explains why the returns of high school employment were higher for students who were not bound for college, in both groups.) Essentially, it shows that kids who have the luxury to go without major jobs in high school are also the kids who are paid more later in life—even though, in the past, this wasn't the case.
Many students are realizing these trends on their own because high school work has rapidly declined in the past decade.
A 2012 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that while the employment rate for high school students older than age 16 remained steady in the 1990s at around 32%, after 2000, the percentage dropped off. By 2010, only 16% of high school teenagers were also employed. Possible reasons for the decline in high school employment that Baum and Ruhm cite are the 2008 recession and increased competition for low-wage jobs from immigrants and other low-income adults, as well as the increased emphasis on education and availability of financial aid for college.
However, kids today still tend to work at some point in high school—or at least, 85% of the 1997 cohort examined in the new study did. A teenager’s desire to have his or her own pocket money is probably universal.