Sigmund Freud thought that becoming a functioning adult had much to do with our ability to adjust to the "reality principle," the way the external world of people and things presses back against our will and limits the attainment of our desires. And in his book, The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford argues that, in a world dominated by technology, activity on screens and interaction through social media increasingly substitute for encounters with the real world around us.
This mode of interaction with the virtual world puts before us the tantalizing, if illusory, possibility of a frictionless universe, one in which we are presented with few or no obstacles to our will. It is, in effect, a world that defers our confrontation with the reality principle and thus, in Freud's sense, postpones adulthood.
Crawford's thesis came to mind as I read a new report from The Brookings Institution: "All School and No Work Becoming the Norm for American Teens." While underscoring the striking decline in teen participation in the workforce, the report offers a balanced assessment of the impact of that decline on teen development.
The data is clear. Teen participation in the labor force peaked in the late 1970s at 57.9%, after which it went into a slow decline. A low point was reached around 2010 at 35% — a level which has been basically maintained since then.
Various possible causes are cited for this falling off: reduced demand for low-wage work, higher minimum wage that is connected to increased competition for entry-level jobs from older workers and immigrants. At the same time there is the paradoxical impact of the increase in the cost of college. In the old days, summer work helped to pay tuition bills. Now the cost is so great that the amount most students earn in the summer does not make much of a dent in student debt.
Some might be tempted to see the drop in employment as indicative of an erosion in the work ethic among the young. But the evidence is not so clear. Students are spending more time in school, even in summer; moreover, "the intensity of high school" classes, with increasing emphasis on AP courses, takes up more time and energy. There is not much discussion here of extra-curricular activities, but these certainly play a role, particularly with students seeking to add items on their résumés for college applications. There is also the year-round demand of club sports — athletes hoping to reach "the next level" devote their time and attention to becoming college recruits.
The study and the research it cites reach no consensus about whether these trade-offs are on balance better or worse for young people. The increased focus on academics would seem to pay dividends in college preparedness, while too much work or work that is especially stressful can have a detrimental effect on teens.
One thing not considered in the report is the way high school jobs have tended to mark a big step toward independent adulthood. The working world is typically less predictable than are school or club sports, both of which can be heavily monitored by overprotective parents. In retail settings, a typical source of employment for past generations, employees have to learn to deal with co-workers, bosses and customers. This is far from a frictionless universe.
Concern about the overprotected child permeates our public discourse. Theories about the negative impact of social media, contributing to everything from increased levels of depression to a decline in the ability to read body language, abound.
As part of the ongoing research and debate about these matters, the role of teen employment in the development of young persons into adults bears further scrutiny. If Freud and Crawford are right, our youths may need more friction, at least of a certain type, and not less. For it is only through learning to confront and navigate external constraints that we become resilient and confident adults.
Thomas S. Hibbs is president of The University of Dallas.