Did Someone Say 'Slacker'? Why Today's Teens May Be Working Too Much
By Hugh C. McBride
Given the stereotypes of lazy, indulgent parents and their spoiled slacker offspring, it would be easy for an outsider to assume that most American families spend abnormal amounts of time slumped on couches or sprawled across their giant beds.
The truth, though, is that Americans are a pretty busy bunch - so much so that some experts believe the nation's collective workaholism may be adding unhealthy amounts of stress to the overscheduled lives of today's teens.
How Much is Too Much?Â
With their hazy recollections of chore-laden weekends and 10-mile trudges to school, many modern parents would be loath to admit that their children are working harder than mom and dad did a generation ago. But statistics show that a number of high school and college students may be pushing themselves beyond the breaking point with a dawn-to-dusk slate of jobs, classes, and extracurricular activities.
"As the baby boomlet hits their teens and 20s, many parents are dismayed to see they've created little adults just like themselves: workaholics," Sue Shellenbarger wrote in a Jan. 16, 2004 column inÂ The Wall Street Journal. "[The children] toil to exhaustion, they're stressed and distracted, and they seldom make time to spend with loved ones. The shock of seeing themselves in their kids brings many of these parents to a dead halt."
With the pressure to succeed starting as early as preschool for some children, it should come as little surprise that some teens are working themselves into a stupor in order to ensure that their scholastic resume is suitably awe-inspiring for college admissions officers and corporate recruiters.
The stresses associated with this mindset were expressed by Katie Haddow, a then-16-year-old high school junior who was interviewed by Liza Mundy for an article in the Oct. 23, 2005 edition ofThe Washington Post. "My problem right now is that I'm feeling like I'm not going to be able to get into a good school; I'm going to end up working at McDonald's," Haddow told Mundy. "I break down every day. It's horrible, all of this pressure from school. I always feel stupid all the time, because of these [advanced] classes: I'm not taking enough, or I'm not doing well enough."
Though no reputable guidance counselor would advise a student like Haddow to eschew hard work in favor of a low-expectation lifestyle, parents, teachers, and teens themselves are all struggling to find an acceptable answer to a simple question about students and work: How much is too much?
Why Teens Work
One reason the answer to that question is much more complex than the query itself is that the concept of "teen work" can be subdivided into several categories, each associated with a wide range of motivations and influences. For example, some students take after-school jobs to help support their families, while others sign up for a spate of extracurriculars to enhance their college applications, and still others fill their afternoons and weekends with charity work for personal or religious purposes - the list could go on and on.
How, then, does a parent know when to say "no" when it comes to an overextended teenager?
For Eve Tahmincioglu, the author of the bookÂ From the Sandbox to the Corner Office, the guiding factors should be focus and benefit - meaning that students' efforts should be focused on activities that will benefit them later in life. In a Dec. 26, 2006 column inÂ USA Today, Tahmincioglu advised against abandoning after-school employment: "Teenagers are working their tails off in school and at everything from violin lessons to swim team, but fewer are working for the money these days, and that means they're missing out on a key rite of passage."
Though students are staying busy in school and through unpaid endeavors, Tahmincioglu wrote that the declining rate of teen employment may be a harbinger of difficulties to come when these uber-active youngsters make it into the paid workforce. Her column referred to research conducted by University of Minnesota professor Jeylan Mortimer, whose study of young workers found that by the time they were in their 20s, "those who had held jobs in their teens developed better interpersonal skills and confidence than those who had bypassed teen toil."
Mortimer's findings might cause concern among the members of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, an advocacy organization of business representatives, education leaders, and policy-makers whose mission is to narrow what the group sees as "a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces."
The Partnership's website encourages collaboration among teachers, employers, and civic leaders to promote the development of the following skill sets that the organization deems necessary for success in the 21st century workplace:
- Information and communication skills
- Thinking and problem-solving (including critical thinking; problem identification, formulation and solution; creativity and intellectual curiosity)
- Interpersonal and self-direction skills (including collaboration, accountability and adaptability, and social responsibility)
- Global awareness
- Financial, economic and business literacy, and entrepreneurial abilities
- Civic literacy
How Parents Can Help
Clearly, many employment experts believe that teens have much to gain from working in even the most menial positions. But learning lessons from the business end of a mop or amidst the grease splatter of the deep fryer can require a significant time commitment. How, then, can parents help teens reap adequate benefits from their efforts without overextending themselves?
In an advice sheet posted on its website, the New Hampshire Department of Labor advises parents of working teens to ask themselves the following questions:
- Is my teen always tired and complaining of not getting enough rest?
- Has my teen lost interest in academics and other activities?
- Have I seen a drop in my teen's grades or academic performance?
- Does my teen no longer have time for family and friends?
Even one "yes," the agency advises, could be a sign that the teen is stretching himself too thin. As Katherine Marshall wrote in her article "The Busy Lives of Teens" (Perspectives on Labour and Income, May 2007), "Education and skill development are important activities for teenagers, but balance in life is also essential for ensuring a positive sense of well-being."