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Investigating the real reasons why youth employment is on the rise

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some businesses are still having a hard time finding workers in this hot labor market, so states like Florida and New Jersey are tackling the problem by loosening current youth employment laws to fill the gap. But when is youth employment child labor? Our colleagues over at The Indicator, Wailin Wong and Adrian Ma, consider the debate around teens in the workplace.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Economist Alicia Modestino first got interested in studying youth employment when her own children were teenagers and having trouble landing their first jobs.

ALICIA MODESTINO: I was really kind of surprised that even for young people who have highly-educated parents, who don't face any racial disparities, were having a hard time finding a summer job. And then as I dug deeper and realized, you know, that employment had been, at the time, declining for decades - just got, you know, very interested in the topic and how we could reverse that.

ADRIAN MA, BYLINE: In the year 2000, about half of 16- to 19-year-olds were in the workforce. Today, it's closer to a third. And Alicia says there are a few reasons for this decline.

MODESTINO: One is there's a lot of jobs that teens used to do that have been automated or taken by other workers.

MA: Alicia says another reason for the drop in teenage workers is that household income has gone up in the past couple decades.

WONG: And finally, Alicia says a number of states tightened laws around youth employment over the last couple decades or so. There are limits on how many hours young people can work during the school year, for example.

MA: But some of these dynamics are now changing thanks to a decline in immigration around the pandemic and a hot labor market the past couple years. One notable shift is dozens of states have introduced legislation to loosen regulations on younger workers.

WONG: Like in Florida - Republican State Representative Linda Chaney sponsored a bill that, among other things, removed limitations on how much 16- and 17-year-olds can work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA CHANEY: This bill gets government out of their way to allow them and their families to choose the best path that's right for them.

WONG: If it's signed into law, Florida will join several other states in relaxing labor laws for teenagers.

MODESTINO: We are still in a situation of a tight labor market, and so I think that's where employers have really been asking for states to loosen some of these restrictions because employers are very desperate to fill these jobs.

MA: For Alicia, there are some restrictions that maybe could be eased, like one in her state of Massachusetts, where 14- and 15-year-olds have to get a doctor to sign a permit for them to work. She says that can be a barrier to some getting jobs. But she's also concerned about other state laws that feel like they're bordering on inappropriate.

MODESTINO: New Jersey recently ruled that minors can work as many as six hours without a break.

MA: Alicia says young workers need protection so they won't be exploited by employers, and she points to an increase in child labor violations. In 2023, the Department of Labor counted nearly 6,000 minors employed in violation of federal child labor laws, which is a 50% increase from the previous year.

WONG: These incidents shift the conversation from one around youth employment to one around child labor.

MA: Alicia says youth employment refers to positive work experiences for teens. Child labor, on the other hand, is work that harms young people.

WONG: Figuring out where a job might tip too far into the child labor side of the spectrum lies at the heart of the debate in a lot of state legislatures right now. Like, what should be the minimum age to serve alcohol? Or how many hours should teens work between mandated breaks? These are the kinds of questions state lawmakers are considering.

MA: Adrian Ma.

WONG: Wailin Wong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.