I was reading a wonderful set of small biographies of Gilded Age entrepreneurs and took note of something we all know once we think about it. These men and women worked in productive labor from an early age.
They universally credit these early work experiments for instilling an ethic to stick to the job, be alert to opportunities and feel that sense of accomplishment that comes from the exercise of stamina. They don’t typically talk about school. They talk about the barges they steered, the rocks they hauled, the mines they dug, the rivers they navigated. Their work was their main teacher.
This was hardly unusual. All through the 18th and 19th centuries, all kids worked. This was not at the expense of academics. Kids still learned to read, write and do math. Work was something that they did in addition to schooling and was part of schooling. So it has been through all of human history. The idea that a healthy kid of 14 years old would do nothing but sit in a desk for seven hours every day and then play video games and chat on Facebook the rest of the time would be unthinkable.
In the developing world, matters are different. Everyone works. Stealth of Nations, a new and mind-blowing book by Robert Neuwirth, shows that in the fastest-growing economies in the world, kids are working from the age of 10. This is not exploitation — quite the opposite. It means that the kids are getting a great education in the real world of commerce. This gives them a leg up in life, and a firmer hold on the future than America’s young people have.
I think about my own life and remember in vivid detail the jobs I had. I’m grateful for every one of them. My first job was working at a company that moved pianos. I recall going up several flights of stairs and being terrified that the whole thing would fall and cause disaster. I was 10 years old.
Then I worked my way up to be a worker with an organ tuner. I crawled around dusty organ lofts, wearing a mask to protect myself from contagious diseases spread by dead pigeons, whose bones I crushed under my feet as I walked.
Then I did roofing. Then it was fence building. Then it was water well digging. Then I mowed lawns. Then I did cleaning for a haircut place. Then I washed dishes.
It was five years before I had my first real job with regular hours and a W-2 paycheck. It was a job cleaning restrooms in a department store. This was the highest responsibility I had ever been given, and I was intensely aware that the fate of the store was in my hands. If a customer went to the restroom and found a mess or a stall that lacked toilet paper or something gross around the sink, they would forever have terrible memories and not come back.
I recall taking on bathroom messes like a centurion took on a battle. War is hell.
To get that job, I was 15 and I had to lie about my age. You could get away with that in those days. The paperwork requirements to get a job were minimal. There feds weren’t involved in enforcing so-called “child labor laws” — outmoded work rules that deny opportunities to people perfectly capable of getting great training.
This is no more. To get any job before 16 years of age is exceedingly difficult. There are so many forms, mandates, documents and restrictions. The minimum wage is preposterously high for a first-time employee. Many young people are shut out of the market, and they stay that way through high school, college and even after (which is no surprise).
The youth unemployment rate for all classes of people has never been higher. It is essentially one-third of people 16-24 years of age. Not working in remunerative labor amounts to training for a lifetime of being a drone and a dependent.
To be sure, when I was young, it was much easier to be paid in cash, essentially working under the table, as most everyone my age did in those days. Now the government has every employer terrified. You risk everything by hiring a young person.
The laws against “child labor” do not date from the 18th century. Indeed, the national law against child labor didn’t pass until the Great Depression — in 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act. It was the same law that gave us a minimum wage and defined what constitutes full-time and part-time work. It was a handy way to raise wages and lower the unemployment rate: Simply define whole sectors of the potential workforce as unemployable.
By the time this legislation passed, however, it was mostly a symbol, a classic case of Washington chasing a trend in order to take credit for it. Youth labor was expected in the 17th and 18th centuries — even welcome, since remunerative work opportunities were newly present.
But as prosperity grew with the advance of commerce, more kids left the workforce. By 1930, only 6.4% of kids ages 10-15 were actually employed, and three out of four of those were in agriculture.
In wealthier, urban, industrialized areas, real child labor (as distinct from teen labor) was largely gone, as more and more kids were being schooled. Cultural factors were important here, but the most-important consideration was economic. More-developed economies permit parents to “purchase” their children’s education out of the family’s surplus income — if only by foregoing what would otherwise be their earnings.
This was widely seen as a wonderful thing. I’m actually not so sure. Education was already being subsidized by the state. The relentless flow of young people out of the commercial sector to the state sector to sit in classrooms meant too many resources being diverted to the professional ideas industry and away from the production of real stuff and a different form of education that went along with it. In any case, this trend was blown up by World War II, which drafted people out of both so that they could kill and be killed.
Regardless, the law itself forestalled no nightmare, nor did it impose one. In those days, there was rising confidence that education was the key to saving the youth of America. Stay in school, get a degree or two and you would be fixed up for life. Of course, that was before academic standards slipped further and further and schools themselves began to function as a national child-sitting service.
Yet today, when young people grow up faster than ever before, we are stuck with these laws, which have the opposite effect of infantilizing teens. They are incredibly complicated once you factor in all state and local variations. Kids under the age of 16 are forbidden to earn income in remunerative employment outside a family business. If your dad is a blacksmith, you can learn to pound iron with the best of ’em. But if dad works for a law firm, you are out of luck.
From the outset, federal law made exceptions for kid movie stars and performers. Why? It probably has something to do with how Shirley Temple led box office receipts from 1934-38. She was one of the highest-earning stars of the period.
If you are 14 or 15, you can ask your public school for a waiver and work a limited number of hours when school is not in session. And if you are in private school or home school, you must ask your local social service agency — not exactly the most-welcoming bunch. The public school itself is also permitted to run work programs.
This point about approved labor is an interesting one, if you think about it. The government doesn’t seem to mind so much if a kid spends all nonschool hours away from the home, family and church, but it forbids them from engaging in private-sector work during the time they would otherwise be in public schools drinking from the well of civic culture. The legal exemption is also made for delivering newspapers, as if bicycles, rather than cars, were still the norm for this activity.
Here is another strange exemption: “youth working at home in the making of wreaths composed of natural holly, pine, cedar or other evergreens (including the harvesting of the evergreens).” Perhaps the wreath lobby was more powerful during the Great Depression than in our own time?
Oh, and there is one final exemption, as incredible as this may be: Federal law permits states to allow kids to work for a state or local government at any age, and there are no hourly restrictions. Virginia, for example, allows this.
The exceptions cut against the dominant theory of the laws that it is somehow evil to “commodify” the labor of kids. If it is wonderful to be a child movie star, congressional page or home-based wreath maker, why is it wrong to be a teenage software fixer, grocery bagger or ice cream scooper? It makes no sense.
Once you get past the exceptions, the bottom line is clear: Full-time work in the private sector, for hours of their own choosing, is permitted only to those “children” who are 18 and older — by which time a child has already passed the age when he can be influenced toward a solid work ethic.
What is lost in the bargain? Kids no longer have the choice to work for money. Parents who believe that their children would benefit from the experience are at a loss. Consumers who would today benefit from our teens’ technological know-how have no commercial way to do so. They have been forcibly excluded from the matrix of exchange.
There is a social-cultural point, too. Employers will tell you that most kids coming out of college are radically unprepared for a regular job. It’s not so much that they lack skills or that they can’t be trained; it’s that they don’t understand what it means to serve others in a workplace setting.
They resent being told what to do, tend not to follow through and work by the clock, instead of the task. In other words, they are not socialized into how the labor market works. Indeed, if we perceive a culture of sloth, irresponsibility and entitlement among today’s young, perhaps we ought to look here for a contributing factor.
The law is rarely questioned today. But it is a fact that child labor laws didn’t come about easily. It took more than a hundred years of wrangling. The first advocates of keeping kids out of factories were women’s labor unions, who didn’t appreciate the low-wage competition. And true to form, labor unions have been reliable exclusionists ever since.
Opposition did not consist of mining companies looking for cheap labor, but parents and clergy alarmed that a law against child labor would be a blow against freedom. They predicted that it would amount to the nationalization of children, which is to say that the government, rather than the parents or the child, would emerge as the final authority and locus of decision making.
Young people have to be creative to be productive today. Seeking unpaid internships can work and is far better than doing nothing. There are also ways to get paid without receiving cash. A kid can work in a neighbor’s garden in exchange for some vegetables for the family. You can fix people’s computers and receive Amazon store credits in compensation. You can work at a country club and receive tennis instruction in a barter-style arrangement.
You have to think outside the regulators’ box. You need connections with people you trust. You need to push past that default position of doing nothing. Regardless, work is essential for the well-formed life, starting early. Sixteen is probably too late, even if you manage to get a job this late.
If you have kids, nothing is more important for their future. You can spend $150,000 or more on their college education. You can pay for expensive tutors to get them through their standardized tests. You can buy them the most-expensive computers and tools to become smart. But if they do not understand the meaning of work from experience, they will not be prepared for a creative and prosperous life.
One way or another, put those kids to work!