Yes, I’m still on vacation, but I wrote a couple of columns ahead of time. Check out my most recent colum from the Washington County Daily News.
Wisconsin Republicans have joined a widespread effort to ease child labor laws to allow more kids to work more often in more places. While advertised as a way to help ease the national labor shortage, it is the kids who will benefit most if the laws are relaxed.
Contrary to the squeals of opposition, nobody supports businesses exploiting child labor. Those who wear shoes and carry phones produced by child labor in other countries seem to be the most vocal about relaxing America’s childlabor laws, but no American wants child sweatshops in our nation. The proposals being discussed are targeted efforts to make it easier for more kids to work.
One bill in Wisconsin, for example, would allow servers between the age of 14 and 17 to serve alcohol. The current law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from serving alcohol. We have all seen how this works in the real world. When dining at a supper club, the 17-yearold server brings everything to your table except the old fashioneds. The poor server has to have the bartender or an adult server to bring your drinks. This is a rule that has no purpose unless one thinks that 16-year-old servers would slurp customers’ drinks on the way to the table. This change in law would simply allow the server who is already working to carry alcohol 40 feet from the bar to the table.
Other states like Ohio are asking the federal government to allow students aged 14 and 15 to work until 9 p.m. on school days. Current laws prohibit them working after 7 p.m., which effectively eliminates the ability for these teens to work during the school week if they are involved in after-school activities. Busy, productive teens are often participating in after-school activities.
What we have seen in the past few decades is that people are beginning their working lives later and later. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of a worker in 2001 was 39.6 years. In 2021, it had risen to 41.7 years. It is projected to be 42.6 years in 2031. What is driving this is that older people are working to later in life while younger people are entering the workforce much later. The number of 16- to 19-year-olds in the workforce dropped from 7.9 million to 5.9 million between 2001 and 2021, and is projected to drop to 4.9 million by 2031. That is a 38% drop in teens working in a single generation.
Over the same period, the rates of mental illness, anxiety, depression, and suicides have all increased for teens. According to the Center for Disease Control, feelings of persistent hopelessness and suicidal behaviors increased by almost 40% among young people between 2010 and 2020. While there are many causes for the rise in troubled teens, it is not coincidental that more kids are feeling worthless and lost as fewer of them are working.
What too often gets lost in this discussion is that there is an intrinsic value in work that goes far beyond the benefit to the employer. Work teaches young people the value of individual effort, how to participate in a team for a common goal, and accountability for actions. Working at an early age teaches people basic work ethics like punctuality, how to follow directions, professional communication, and time management. It teaches kids how to function in an environment where they are not the center of the universe, how to be productive with unreasonable customers and bad bosses, and slacker co-workers.
The value of work is that it provides kids with a sense of selfworth, pride, and dignity that no amount of self-esteem puffery in school and home can produce. These are benefits that kids will carry within themselves for the remainder of their lives.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once opined that, “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” One cannot be happy without feeling useful and valued. Relaxing the labor laws to allow more kids to get that feeling through work will lead to happier, more well-balanced, and mentally healthier adultis.