Should My Teen Work?

by Sarah E. Hall, PhD
| Excerpted from The Vine, Spring 2011 |

Families with adolescents often wrestle with the question of whether teenagers who are full-time students should also be working. Many high school students do work during the school year: about half of sophomores, two-thirds of juniors, and almost three quarters of seniors hold at least a part-time job. While for some families this choice is an economic necessity and entails little debate, for others it begins with a process of weighing the potentials pros and cons of teen employment. There have been a number of research studies that have explored the effects of working on teens and their well-being, and the main findings that have come out of this work are presented below.

There are a number of benefits working may provide for adolescents. Teens gain specific skills from working, including money and time management skills as well as goal-setting and evaluation skills. Seeking a job in high school also begins to build teens’ understanding of how the business world works and gives them an opportunity to practice job interview skills and learn what it takes to hold a job. Furthermore, research suggests that teenage employment may lead to increases in responsibility, self-reliance, pride in one’s accomplishments, and discipline.

However, there are also potential downsides to working as a high school student. Teenagers who work often have to give up other time-consuming and beneficial activities, such as sports, time with friends and family, and even sleep. Working may also affect school performance. In one survey of teenagers with jobs, over 25% reported that their grades worsened when they began working. Adolescents who work during the school year also report that they enjoy school less and feel less involved in their school communities than teens who don’t work; working teens also miss more days of school on average.

If you and your teenager decide that he or she should seek a job, there are a number of factors you should consider. One factor that varies greatly across teens and jobs is the numbers of hours worked each week. Research suggests that working many hours per week – more than 14 hours for 10th graders and more than 20 hours for 11th graders – negatively affects schoolwork. Teenagers who work long hours are also more likely to use alcohol and drugs (such as marijuana). A second job-related factor that influences the effect of working on teens is the type of job. Jobs that teach skills, such as working in an office or as an intern or apprentice in a specialized field, seem to be more beneficial for teens than jobs that are traditionally considered unskilled, such as working in a fast-food restaurant. A third factor to consider is a teenager’s life context and surroundings. Working may be particularly beneficial for adolescents who live in lower-income, urban environments because of the economic benefits and engagement with supervising adults that a job can offer. For these teenagers, working appears to have a positive effect on school engagement and performance.

While studies of adolescents who work can be informative, it is important to remember that each teenager is unique, and research represents the patterns that are most common across the large numbers of teens studied. The right decision about adolescent employment during the school year is different for every family. It is important for parents and teenagers to weigh the costs and benefits of a job and to consider the best fit for each teen’s personality, level of responsibility, time management ability, and potential to benefit from productive work. If teenagers work during the school year, the number of hours they work should be limited to an amount that does not interfere with other important activities, such as schoolwork and some time to socialize.