All Commentary
Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Loosening Youth Employment Regulations Empowers Teens

Far from exploiting young people, reducing employment barriers for teen workers empowers them.

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My 16-year-old daughter just got her first part-time job, working at a local coffee shop. She comes home beaming after her shifts, energized by the collaboration with her coworkers and the reward of busily serving customers from all over the world.

When I shared with her a recent Associated Press article on teen employment suggesting that there are “other ways to expand the workforce without putting more of a burden on kids,” she was perplexed. Her work is not a burden. It’s a delight. 

The AP explored current efforts in some states to loosen youth employment laws to enable more young people to access jobs if they choose. Most of these changes target the current tight restrictions on jobs for 14- and 15-year-olds that limit where and how they work. Here in Massachusetts, for example, these laws prevent teenagers under age 16 from working in places such as bowling alleys and barber shops. 

Critics of efforts to loosen youth employment restrictions, such as a bill New Jersey lawmakers passed last year allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to work up to 50 hours per week in the summertime, argue that widening access to work can burden teenagers and even be exploitative. They instead advocate other policies, like encouraging immigration, that could alleviate widespread labor market shortages without impacting teens.

This is a both/and situation. We should encourage immigration and open our borders to newcomers, and we should reduce barriers that make it harder for teenagers to work. Both are desirable policies that expand human flourishing.

Yet, headlines abound about supposed exploitation of children in the workplace. A story last month about employment practices at various McDonald’s franchises raised alarm over two 10-year-olds that were at a Kentucky McDonald’s location after midnight. It turns out that they were the children of a night manager and were visiting their parent.   

Other McDonald’s proprietors, as well as owners of some Dunkin Donuts shops, have been hit with fines recently over various youth labor infractions, such as employing 16- and 17-year-olds for over nine hours per day or asking them to work past 10:00 pm. The real question in these cases is this: who should have authority over the teenager’s actions? If a 17-year-old chooses to work at McDonald’s until 10:30 pm and her parents approve, why should the government stop her?

Proponents of youth employment regulations argue that the passage of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938 ended child labor in the US and that without government intervention, young children would still be working in factories and similar workplaces. The reality is that it was the economic prosperity driven by free markets, and not government regulation, that ended that kind of child labor in the developed world. 

Poverty was the prime reason children in the US often worked in places like factories in the 19th and early-20th centuries. As the country prospered and average per capita income rose, parents were able to support their families on their own without relying on their children’s wages.

According to Wake Forest University economist, Robert Whaples: “Most economic historians conclude that this [FLSA] legislation was not the primary reason for the reduction and virtual elimination of child labor between 1880 and 1940. Instead they point out that industrialization and economic growth brought rising incomes, which allowed parents the luxury of keeping their children out of the work force.”

This trend continues today throughout developing countries. As average per capita income increases, child labor declines, regardless of government policy.

Thankfully, due to our country’s vast economic prosperity, most children don’t need to work. Actions taken today by state lawmakers to loosen teen employment regulations are common sense approaches to reducing obstacles for teenagers who want to work. Clearly, no one—teen or adult—should ever be forced to work, and we have long-standing laws against forced labor. Current proposals to expand employment access to more teens are grounded in the principle of voluntary exchange in a free labor market.

Wisconsin legislators, for instance, introduced a bill to enable younger teens to serve alcohol at restaurants, something that is currently prohibited and can result in these teens not being hired for restaurant jobs. Similar legislation recently passed in Iowa, which also enables 14- and 15-year-olds to work up to six hours a day during the school year, instead of only four hours. Ohio legislators are seeking to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to work until 9:00 pm, instead of 7:00 pm, year-round, with parent and school consent. And Arkansas lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year eliminating required work permits for 14- and 15-year-olds.

Far from exploiting young people, reducing employment barriers for teen workers empowers them. I vividly remember my first teen job as a pharmacy cashier. It was thrilling to meet so many new people and be exposed to new perspectives outside of home and school. A teen job is an important life milestone, and a valuable way for young people to develop competence and confidence on their pathway toward adulthood. It can also be an economic equalizer, enabling lower-income teens to purchase the goods and gadgets that are frequently gifted to teens in more affluent households. 

We should be encouraging greater teen labor force participation, and minimizing employment hurdles, so that more young people can experience the financial independence and personal fulfillment that work provides. 

This is especially true now as employment data show that teen labor force participation is at a historic low. In 1979, nearly 58 percent of teenagers ages 16 to 19 worked. Since 2010, that number has hovered around 35 percent. The declines are most pronounced in school-year teen employment, as schooling and school-like activities now dominate young people’s days, but teen summer labor force participation is also down. 

For all the societal angst around youth social media use, it could be that many teens don’t have a lot of other options for how to spend their time. Prevented from working, and increasingly exiled from community spaces like malls, it’s little wonder that more teens retreat into screens and social media. 

Reducing barriers to work would go a long way toward empowering teens to have healthier, more authentic, real-life interactions with the people in their communities, while gaining important skills that will benefit them in whatever life path they choose.