Let Teens Work

Teenagers who work part-time see lifelong benefits.


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A video of a 13-year-old working at Chick-fil-A went viral recently after an advocacy group called More Perfect Union uploaded it to Twitter and then pointed the finger at the "National Restaurant Association—a lobby group funded by big food corporations," calling it "a key driver behind new bills letting kids work dangerous jobs."

Sure, taking drive-thru orders and slinging waffle fries at a Chick-fil-A your dad owns sounds like the definition of danger. Exactly like working in a coal mine.

Over the past year, to help deal with labor shortages, several states have pushed for legislative changes that would let more teenagers work. New Jersey enacted a bill allowing 16-year-olds to work up to 50 hours a week during summer break with parental approval. In Ohio, the legislature is considering a proposal that would make it possible for 14- and 15-year-olds to work longer hours during the school year—one of the few policies Democrats and Republicans in the legislature agree on. And last month, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill that eliminated a requirement that 14- and 15-year-olds obtain a permit before getting a job.

These bills don't primarily benefit the big food lobby, as the union-backed group that posted the video claims. And it's not an evil plot to exploit children for profit. The people who stand to benefit most are teenagers themselves, who by having a job can learn to show up on time, follow instructions, work collaboratively, and manage money that they earned themselves and therefore value more.

"I feel as if I've learned so much from this simple job over the past few years," a teen who worked as a ski instructor told The New York Times in 2022. "I've learned how to work with children, become a better teacher, and how to help different people based on how they learn new skills."

"My job has helped me personally in many ways, I was super shy before I started and now I am more confident," added another high school student, who was working 5 days a week after school. "I have learned time management so that I can get from school to work and then come home and do homework."

Plenty of data backs up the claim that holding a job as a teen has positive effects. A 2016 paper in the Southern Economic Journal, for example, found that high schoolers working 20 hours a week during their senior year had 12 percent higher earnings in their careers than those that didn't, although that wage premium has declined over the years. 

"In a job, teens are forced to discover or build out parts of themselves that are not required for school, home or sports," psychologist Lisa Damour told The Washington Post last year. She stressed that having a job teaches kids to answer to adults who aren't their parents, because when they do the same thing "over and over, there's no need to grow."

We need to stop treating teenagers as inherently fragile, or they'll become that way. Real-world exposure to the challenge of getting paid to do things that other people value will benefit them for the rest of their lives. 

  • Video Editing and Audio Production: John Osterhoudt
  • Camera: Isaac Reese, Justin Zuckerman, and Adam Czarnecki