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Unlock Adolescent Productivity June 3, 2007

Posted by David Bookstaber in Education, Human Markets.

Society has essentially locked up the human capital of teenagers, putting adolescents in a sort of limbo where they are unable to participate productively in society.  Robin Moroney summarizes Robert Epstein’s thoughts on this:

Today’s schooling and child-labor laws worked well in the late 19th century, when factories brutally exploited young workers, and a lifetime of education had to be packed into the start of life. A century later, the laws serve only to divorce teens from the adult world.

“They are free to spend, to be disrespectful, to stay out all night, to have sex and take drugs,” says Dr. Epstein. “But they’re not free to join the adult world, and that’s what needs to change.”

Parents who want to give their children “responsibility tied to significant rights” have few ways to do it. States have been increasing restrictions on teens since the 1960s. Having raised the drinking age, some states are considering prohibiting teens from attending parties where alcohol is served, even if they’re not drinking. Parents have few ways to resist such infantilization, other than by assigning household chores, which tends to increase household conflict.

Dr. Epstein recommends giving teens more options, privileges and responsibilities. He believes we should see schooling as a lifetime project, rather than something only for the young. He would allow some teens to work and set up businesses while still in school. He recommends establishing tests that teens could take to prove they’re competent to assume responsibilities like owning property or running a business, the way they can now if they want a driver’s license.


1. federalist - September 10, 2007

Naturally, the first question out of a typical teenager’s mouth when invited to engage in something productive will be, “Like what?” Last month Sue Shellenbarger summarized advice from WSJ readers on that question:

Try aptitude testing: Several parents said career testing had worked well for their kids, either at college counseling centers or other sources. Testing by the nonprofit Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (www.jocrf.org), an assessment firm with 11 offices nationwide, was recommended by several readers. Cost is $600 per person. Others recommended books, including “Do What You Are” by Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger.

Call in reinforcements: “Other adults, family and friends can inspire young adults to think beyond the “doctor-lawyer-teacher-banker syndrome,” writes Ayse Birsel, New York. She fell in love with her profession, industrial design, after a friend of her parents, an urban planner, came for tea and talked with her about “what it meant to design objects and products,” she says.

After his daughter dropped out of college lacking direction, Larry McGee, Winston-Salem, N.C., called on a family friend, an outplacement counselor, who interviewed her and administered interest tests. She discovered an interest in design and architecture, and has since “absolutely loved and excelled in her studies” in interior design, he says.

Try jobs out: Many readers recommended experience in a job — any job — as a career-finding tool. Alan Roth, Cincinnati, says detailing cars one summer helped his son realize “physical work was clearly not his deal”; he became more motivated to hit the books, with a goal of working in publishing.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller, Los Angeles, recommends teens “create their own internships, to ‘test drive'” various jobs. A would-be vet, for example, could apply to a veterinary practice, taking a résumé and asking for a brief appointment to discuss an unpaid position, says Ms. Miller, who has written a book aimed at helping teens find a career.

Envision a Venn Diagram: Toby Joplin, Tulsa, Okla., encourages her two teens to “let their vocation be guided by three overlapping circles.” One stands for “all the things they love to do.” The second stands for activities at which they’re especially talented. And the third is for “activities that others will pay them to perform.” Then, “I explain to them that the optimal career lies at the intersection of those three circles.” She adds, “My prayer is that some of the theory will come back to them when it’s time to evaluate career choices.”

Suggest service: Art Shostak, Philadelphia, a university sociology professor, says the column left out an important objective of work: Serving others — in itself a great motivator. “I regret you didn’t say more about encouraging children to include in their career-decision calculus the idea of giving back, of making a contribution, of aiding others, of helping the world get just a little better,” Dr. Shostak writes.

Stress process over outcome: A Massachusetts reader said he was hard-pressed to support his 19-year-old college student’s exploration of a career as a race-car driver. But he did anyway, because he had already encouraged “her quest for what she’d love to do,” he writes. Swallowing his fear, he researched training programs. At least if she becomes a race-car driver, he says, “it won’t be because in resisting her, I drove her to it!”

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