Adolescents' Perceptions of the Role of Part-Time Work

By McKechnie, Jim; Lindsay, Sandra et al. | Adolescence, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview
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Adolescents' Perceptions of the Role of Part-Time Work

McKechnie, Jim, Lindsay, Sandra, Hobbs, Sandy, Lavalette, Michael, Adolescence

In the U.S., the study of child employment has attained academic legitimacy. In part this must be attributable to the work of Greenberger and Steinberg (1986), which acted as a focus and catalyst for such research. The extent to which consideration of part-time employment among adolescents has attained acceptability is reflected in the fact that recently the American Journal of Industrial Medicine devoted an entire issue to the health and safety consequences of such employment (Landrigan, 1993). Further, recent U.S. textbooks on developmental psychology have included chapters on this topic (e.g., Santrock, 1987; Steinberg, 1993).

In Great Britain a different picture emerges. Over the last two decades a number of researchers have turned their attention to the issue of child employment (e.g., Davies, 1972; MacLennan, Fitz, & Sullivan, 1985; Pond & Searle, 1991). In a review of this work, Lavalette, McKechnie, and Hobbs (1991) suggested that the data indicated that approximately one third of children were likely to be employed, while an additional third would have worked at some time in the past. Such data is important in supporting the view that part-time employment is a normal part of the pre-16-year-old's experience in Britain. However, a cautionary note is also sounded as to the methodologies and variations in the definition of employment. For example, these studies have all used questionnaires to gather data on present and past employment. Reliance on retrospective accounts may be questionable.

In addition, most of the British research has been concerned with establishing the extent of part-time work among adolescents and the type of jobs they do. Children between the ages of 13 and 16 years are allowed to work in the United Kingdom only in certain jobs, for strictly limited hours, and provided they have a permit issued by the local education authority. Several British studies have demonstrated that the law is widely flouted. Most children who work do so illegally.

While such studies are important in drawing attention to the issue of child employment, they have tended to neglect the issue of the costs and benefits of such employment. One of the few exceptions has been Davies (1972) who focused on the relationship between children's employment and education. Davies concluded that children who work are less likely to succeed in school, more likely to be truant, and less likely to continue their education. Hobbs, Lindsay, and McKechnie (1993b) have argued that some caution is needed in applying these conclusions to the present day. Their own study gives only limited support to Davies' work. Unlike Britain, in the United States there is a well-established body of data on the implications of such employment (e.g., Steinberg, Fegley, & Dornbusch, 1993). In addition, a new direction is now emerging in American research. Instead of looking at the potential relationship between employment and other variables such as school performance, some recent studies have turned attention to the child's experience of employment.

Adopting this approach has led Green (1990) to question Greenberger and Steinberg's (1986) emphasis on the potentially negative effect of employment. Green has argued that employment can be viewed in a more positive light; participants are found to develop positive interpretations of work and exert control over the experience by regulating their employment. In particular, Green believes it can serve as a number of functions for adolescents including facilitating the move from school to work and allowing the individual to gain wider social experience outside of the family and school.

The negative stereotype which Green believes permeates the U.S. study of child employment also dominates the limited research in Britain (e.g., Pond & Searle, 1991). If Green is correct in challenging our negative image of child employment, then British research also needs to address this issue.

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