Too Old, Too Fast?

Anyone who thinks teenagers spend their afternoons playing hoops, hanging out at the mall--or, for that matter, studying--should meet 18-year-old Dave Fortune of Manchester, N.H. He wakes up at dawn, slurps some strawberry jam for a sugar rush, goes to the high school until 2:30 p.m., hurries home to make sure his little sister arrives safely, changes and goes off to his job at a clothing store. He gets home at around 10:30, does maybe an hour of homework--"if I have any"--and goes to sleep around midnight. The routine begins anew five hours later. Fortune knows he's sacrificed some of his school life for his job. He misses playing soccer and baseball as he did in junior high, and he had to give up a challenging law class because he had so little time for studying. "I have to work," Dave says. "I have to work."

A peek in Fortune's closet suggests otherwise. His back-to-school wardrobe: two leather jackets, six sweaters, 12 pairs of jeans, four pairs of shoes, two pairs of sneakers, two belts, "loads of shirts," and a half-dozen silk pants and shirts that would make a jockey proud. Price tag for the spree (with his store discount): $550.

After-school jobs have become a major force in teen life. More than 5 million kids between 12 and 17 now work, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau. Teens are twice as likely to work as they were in 1950. The change has been fueled by the growth of the service sector after World War II, the rise of the fast-food industry in the 1960s and '70s and an increase in the number of girls entering the work force. About two thirds of seniors today work more than five hours a week during the academic year. While Wally Cleaver's afternoons were occupied by varsity track, basketball and hanging around with Eddie Haskell, Brandon Walsh on "Beverly Hills, 90210" waits on tables at the Peach Pit because his wealthy parents think it will teach him responsibility--and so that he could buy a Mustang convertible.

As political attention focuses on improving the quality of high school&-and producing a highly trained work force better fit for global competition--states have begun restricting the hours teens can work during the school year. In their senior year, about 47 percent of male student workers and 36 percent of females put in more than 20 hours per week at their jobs. Psychologists and teachers see the strain on students. They have little time for homework, and teachers who regularly watch exhausted students struggling to keep their heads up all too often respond by lowering standards. "Everybody worries why Japanese and German and Swedish students are doing better than us," says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University. "One reason is they're not spending their afternoons wrapping tacos."

The significance of after-school work goes beyond sagging test scores and eyelids. In interviews with 64 high-school students in New Hampshire, Iowa, Virginia, Illinois and Maryland, an unsettling picture emerges. The prevalence of youth employment has transformed what it means to be a teenager. Kids who take jobs by choice, not necessity, have worked themselves into what one scholar called "premature affluence"--the ability to finance consumer binges even as their parents are cutting back.

They buy clothing with all the well-heeled restraint of Imelda Marcos. Many have cars, which they use to go on lavish dates. Despite the recession, only 10 percent of high-school seniors surveyed last year said they were saving most of their earnings for college, and just 6 percent said they used most of it to help pay family living expenses. Finally, job even play a role in changing the relationships between teens and their parents. Pulled in many directions, parents grant their working children striking amounts of autonomy. Working at the local McDonald's, in short, has enabled many teens to buy out of adolescence.

There are those, of course, who must work. The recession has forced some kids into the labor force to help their parents survive. Teachers, students and social scientists also agree that work can teach discipline, self-respect and efficiency. Fortune's father, for example, insisted his son work to learn some responsibility-and the son says he has. Some studies show that kids who work moderately actually do better in school than those who don't take jobs at all. Students on the verge of dropping out--or into criminality--can be kept on track by a good job. It can even teach tolerance by forcing them to meet kids of different social cliques.

Nonetheless, educators worry that while the benefits of work have been known for years, a range of problems has been left unexplored. Some are apparent at Pembroke Academy, a public high school near Concord, N.H.:

Vanessa Thompson saw her grades plummet from B's to D's when she increased her schedule last year from 25 to 30 hours a week at a movie theater and Lady Foot Locker. "You either do homework at study hall or it just doesn't get done," she says. Her boss at the shoe store questioned whether she was keeping up with school. "Of course I lied to her because I needed the hours," Thompson says. "School's important but so's money. Homework doesn't pay. Teachers say education is your payment, and that just makes me want to puke."

Andrew Cutting points to a small red scar above his right eye, a reminder of what might be called a job-related injury. Last month Cutting was in study hall writing a composition when, midsentence, he fell asleep, slamming his head down on the tip of his pen cap. "It hurt wicked bad," he says. "I felt like an idiot." He was tired from pumping gas at a nearby Mobil station the night before. He says he's managing his sleep better now and will keep the job so he can buy a car and pay for his own clothes instead of the "queer shirts with butterflies on the collar" his parents get. His head probably hurts less, too.

Artie Bresby stocks shelves at Shaw's Supermarket. To sustain his job pace, he takes six Vivarin pills (equivalent to about 15 cups of coffee), plus two liters of turbocharged Mountain Dew. That, however, did not stop him from dozing off during a group interview with NEWSWEEK

Are these three the exception or the norm? Their schedules, at least, are typical. A 1989 study by the state of New Hampshire found that 77 percent of seniors were employed and more than half of them worked more than 20 hours. Does working too much really hinder academic performance? Some scholars cite Japan, where students do better in school--and work at jobs less. According to a forthcoming study by University of Michigan professor Harold Stevenson, 74 percent of juniors surveyed in Minneapolis worked-compared with 21 percent in Sendai, Japan. Indeed, almost half the public schools in Tokyo prohibit students from working.

Other U.S. studies have shown a more direct link between hours worked and academic achievement. A study by the Educational Testing Service concluded that kids who work longer hours are less likely to take biology and chemistry courses, and earn lower achievement scores in math, science, history, literature and reading. Another study of more than 68,000 students nationally linked working more than 20 hours to increased cigarette and alcohol use, less sleep and more truancy. While the author of the ETS study points out that these kids might not do well in school even if they weren't working, other researchers say that a heavy workload exacerbates poor performance.

The job frenzy may even harm students who don't work. Some teachers demand less. Knowing that students were unlikely to read books outside class in part because of their job schedules, Ken Sharp, an English teacher at Pembroke, has his pupils spend a week reading a play aloud in class. A study of 1,577 Wisconsin teenagers in the early 1980s revealed that teachers shortened reading assignments, simplified lectures and reduced out-of-class assignments-all to accommodate teen work schedules. It "was a factor in demoralizing teachers and giving the students' in turn, a message that little of significance would happen at school," wrote Linda M. McNeil, the Rice University professor who conducted the study.

In some schools, standards are so low that it's become easy to get decent grades even while holding down a time-consuming job; there just isn't that much schoolwork to do. Parents, too, may lower expectations. Michael Szpisjak, a senior at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview, Ill., more than doubled his hours at a publishing company, though he knew it would hurt his grades. His father encouraged him to work. "Usually people at the bottom of the class are the most successful if you measure it in terms of how much money they make," says Stephen Szpisjak.

Teen work is also threatening extracurricular activities-which can be the best part of high school. Musical aptitude of students has declined since the days when "work was limited to summers and maybe a paper route," because students no longer have time to practice, says Terry Grossberg, the band teacher at Waukegan High in Illinois. William Turner played wide receiver his freshman year at Largo High in suburban Maryland, but quit last year to bag groceries so he'd have money for "clothes and girls." It turned out that was the year the team went to the state semifinals. His grades dropped as well, from 3.67 down to 2.50, so he cut back on his job this year.

Every individual reacts differently to work, but two groups seem immune to a job's detriments: weak and gifted students. "Some kids are not real good students, but at work, they're Queen of the May," says guidance counselor Gloria Mueller of Glenbrook South. The other group is that small slice at the top: the Roboteens who manage to do, and excel at, everything. John Fiorelli of Glenbrook wakes up at 5:30, runs three miles, earns grades in the top 10 percent, runs seven or eight miles after school for the cross-country team, serves as senior-class president and still works 15 to 20 hours washing dishes at a nearby hospital. "I like the pressure," he says.

Kids willingly make the sacrifice in part because high school's frenzy of consumerism has grown only more intense. Teens have always coveted thy friends' belongings, but could do little about it when their pockets were empty. But teen earning power increased from $65 billion in 1986 to $95 billion last year, far outpacing inflation and parental income, according to Teenage Research Unlimited, a marketing firm. Teens spent $82 billion in 1991, and have maintained the pace despite the recession. The more money Johnny has, the more he buys.

Some run-of-the-mill purchases by middle-class teens capture the 90210-ish expectations of teen life: Chris Lamarre, who works at a Manchester carpet store, bought his girlfriend a $100 Gucci watch and himself a $600 car stereo. Mary Kane of Olney, Md., spent $1,000 of her earnings from Lady Foot Locker to go to Cancun for eight days with her friends. More and more 'dents at Glenbrook South are spending hundreds of dollars to get beepers-not to consummate drug deals, but to retrieve messages from friends. Blame it on peer pressure: when you go out with friends, "you don't want to say, 'I can't do that, I don't have the money'," explains Kirsten Fournier, a senior at Manchester West High.

The growth of the youth spending culture raises an ironic question: wasn't work supposed to teach kids the "value of the dollar"? Well, in a way, it does. "You see a two-for-one deal at a store and you're like, 'Whoaaa!'" says Chris Weir of Pembroke. Jerald Bachman, program director of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, argues that students who develop premature affluence become accustomed to spending large percentages of their take-home pay. Why can Rasheda Stevenson, a Largo High senior, who worked 20 hours a week last year as a cashier, be so profligate? "If I see some dress shoes and they're, like, $80," she says, "my mother's going to wait until they go on sale. But if I want them I can get them right then and there. I don't have bills to pay. I don't have any children. It's just me." Stevenson has 20 pairs of dress shoes-and "a purse to go with every pair"--plus 10 pairs of tennis shoes.

The most important thing students can "buy" with their jobs is an altered relationship with their parents. Time after time, students say employment gave them more freedom. Parents who would contemptuously refuse to buy their children a shelf of color-coordinated Nikes can take the posture "It's your money; you can spend it on what you want." The net effect is that teens can feel, and are treated, more like adults. "It was like I just lived there, like a tenant," says Marvin Silver of Largo High. Last year he had dinner with his parents just on weekends while he was working at Morton's department store roughly 25 hours a week. "I'm losing my kid," says Betty Miller, whose daughter, Kris, a Wakefield High senior, fixes pastries and cappuccino at Bistro Bistro four and a half hours, four nights a week.

Parents often agree to the new arrangement because maintaining authority has become so difficult. Vetoing a son's purchase of Calvins or a used Mustang would mean forcing him to swim against a tidal wave of materialism at school. Patricia Turner, mother of the Largo student who missed the football championship, says parents now confront the extra fear that if they don't allow their kids to earn the trappings of adolescence legally, they will be lured by the easy money of drug dealing.

A kid's self-sufficiency can also relieve a parent of financial burden, even if the teen isn't directly pitching in for rent. But saying that a daughter can't sacrifice the glee club to buy a car means that parents might have to pick her up at school; with both working, that might be impossible. By accepting this assistance, parents in effect sell some of their authority for cash relief. They're selling too low, says Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, past president of the American Psychiatric Association. "Parents should be parents, and children should be children."

For those empathetic children who try to take care of their families as well as do "youthful" activities, the pressure can be enormous. Mary Clark's mother encourages her to participate in Wakefield High activities because "you're only young once." But Mary was proud she was able to pay for redecorating her room so she wouldn't have to ask her mom, who is single and holds down two jobs, as a waitress and a secretary. But taking on so much can be overwhelming. Last March, she was baby-sitting three nights a week, helping take care of her nephew, trying to learn her lines for her role in "Julius Caesar" and worrying about academic project soon due. She sat in class realizing that in addition to all that, she wasn't understanding the algebra lesson. In the middle of class, she broke down and quietly sobbed.

Only in recent years have states, parents and business owners tried to preserve the numerous benefits of work while eliminating the excesses. Washington state last month imposed a 20-hour limit for 16- and 17-year-olds while school is in session-half the previous level. Wisconsin, Indiana, New York, North Carolina and Maine have restricted work hours this year, and, since 1990, eight other states have changed their rules. But some business groups have mobilized to block restrictions. In Washington state, fast-food companies bused in burger flippers to protest against the proposed reduction to 20 hours a week.

Such restrictions mean nothing, of course, if they're not enforced. A child-labor crackdown by former labor secretary Elizabeth Dole has all but disappeared under the administration of Lynn Martin. The number of federal investigators has dropped from 970 to 841 in three years, and the department has asked for only 825 next year. States have cut back, too. Illinois now has only 13 child-labor inspectors for the entire state, down from 18 five years ago. And while lax enforcement can lead to sleepy students, it also allows for far worse: more than 71,000 teenagers were injured at work in 1990, according to a recent study by the National Safe Workplace Institute.

Attitudes of individual bosses range from cruel to paternal. One student said he was forced to miss graduation ceremonies to keep his job. "I would have employers write me the nastiest letters because I wouldn't drop a chemistry class because they wanted a kid to work at 1 [p.m.]" says Manchester West principal Robert Baines. "I finally wrote back and said,'Please leave them alone until 2:33'." Yet other students reported that their supervisors helped them with homework or crafted schedules around exams and athletics. The owners of 25 McDonald's in Baton Rouge, La., last year started offering bonuses to kids with good grades. A 3.0 average earns an extra 15 cents per hour. Schools are increasingly taking the posture that if students are going to work, it should at least be at a meaningful job. High-school students in rural Rothsay, Minn., actually run the local hardware and grocery stores so students can gain supervised experience tied to a curriculum. A program in Chicago helps teens run New Expression, a paper with a circulation of 70,000.

Ultimately, though, it is neither legislators nor employers who will have to solve the conundrum of teen work. Most parents are proud of their children earning a paycheck, but find themselves unaware of the problems their children's jobs can create. All parents want the best future for their kids. Once upon a time, after-school work seemed a perfect way to teach sons and daughters a little something about the real world and reward them with some cash at the same time. Now, for too many teenagers,too much of a wise thing may be squandering that very future.

Grade-Point Averages A 1991 study of high-school students in California and Wisconsin shows that those who work a few hours a week are the most successful HOURS WORKED GPA 0 3.00 1-10 3.04 11-15 2.93 16-20 2.86 21+ 2.66

Teens in Two Societies In different cities, here's where teenagers get their money and how they spend their time.

Sendai, Minneapolis Japan U.S. Percent working 21% 74% Mean number of hours worked weekly 9.8 hrs. 15.6 hrs. Percent feeling stress at least once a week 43.4% 71.2% Portion of spending money from parents 94.7% 47.5% Weekly amount received from jobs and parents $86 $205 Percent dating 36.8% 84.5% Weekly TV watching 16.7 hrs. 12 hrs. SOURCE: UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN

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