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Part-Time Work Ethic: Should Teens Go for It?

November 07, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

John Fovos landed his first part-time job--as a box boy at Alpha Beta on West Olympic--the summer after his sophomore year at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. "I wanted to be independent," he said, "and I felt it was time for me to see what the world really was like."

Now an 18-year-old senior, Fovos works the late shift at the supermarket stocking shelves four nights a week. He saves about $50 a week, but most of his paycheck goes to his car payment and membership at a health spa. "The rest is for food--what I don't eat at home--and clothes."

Shelley Staats went to work part time as a secretary for a Century 21 office when she was 15. Since then, she has worked as a cashier for a marine products company, scooped ice cream at a Baskin- Robbins, cashiered at a Video Depot and worked as a "floater" at May Co.

The Newport Harbor High School senior currently works about 25 hours a week in the lingerie department at the new Broadway in Costa Mesa. Although she saves about $200 a month for college, she said she works "to support myself: my car and clothes and just stuff I do, like going out."

Working also has helped her to learn to manage both her time and money, Staats said, and her work in the department store is providing experience for a future career in fashion merchandising.

But, she acknowledged, there are times when working while going to school has taken its toll.

"Last year I was sleeping in my first-period class half the time," admitted Staats, who occasionally has forgone football games and school dances because of work. "After a while, it just wears you out."

Nathan Keethe, a Newport Harbor High School senior who works more than 20 hours a week for an exterminating service, admits to sometimes feeling like the odd man out when he sees that fellow students "are out having a good time after school and I'm working. But then I think there's a lot of other kids out there working, too, and it doesn't seem so unusual."

Indeed, what clearly was the exception 40 years ago is now the rule.

Fovos, Staats and Keethe are riding the crest of a wave of part-time student employees that began building at the end of World War II and has steadily increased to the present. In 1981, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 80% of high school students have held part-time jobs by the time they graduate.

Viewed as Valuable

Part-time work during the school years traditionally has been viewed as an invaluable experience for adolescents, one that builds character, teaches responsibility and prepares them for entering the adult world.

But the authors of a provocative new book challenge conventional wisdom, contending that an over-commitment to work during the school years "may make teenagers economically wealthy but psychologically poor."

The book, "When Teen-agers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment" (Basic Books), is by Ellen Greenberger, a developmental psychologist and professor of social ecology at UC Irvine, and Laurence Steinberg, a professor of child and family studies at the University of Wisconsin.

Based on national research data and on the authors' own study of more than 500 working and non-working students at four Orange County high schools, the book reports that:

- Extensive part-time employment during the school year may undermine youngsters' education. Students who work long hours are more likely to cut back on courses at school, taking easier classes and avoiding tougher ones. And, say the authors, long hours of work begun early in the school years increase the likelihood of dropping out.

- Working leads less often to the accumulation of savings or financial contributions to the family than to a higher level of spending on cars, clothes, stereos, concerts and other luxury items.

- Working appears to promote, rather than deter, some forms of delinquent behavior. About 30% of the youngsters in their first part-time job have given away goods or services; 18% have taken things other than money from work; 5 1/2% have taken money from work; and 17% have worked under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to the Orange County study.

- Working long hours under stressful conditions leads to increased alcohol and marijuana use.

- Teen-age employment--typically in dull or monotonous jobs for which the sole motivation is the paycheck--often leads to increased cynicism about working.

Maturity Deterrent Moreover, the authors contend that adolescents who work long hours may develop the superficial social skills of an adult but by devoting too much time to a job they severely curtail the time needed for reflection, introspection and identity experimentation that is required to develop true maturity.

Such findings lead Greenberger and Steinberg to conclude "that the benefits of working to the development of adolescents have been overestimated, while the costs have been underestimated."

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