Do High-School Jobs Help People Make More Money Later in Life?

They used to, but not so much anymore.
liz west/Flickr

Remember the job you had in high school? Scooping ice cream at Baskin Robbins, babysitting for a neighbor, or a cashier at the mall? For me, it was a receptionist job at my friend’s dad’s place—a doctor’s office. Such drudgery has always been thought to come with a hidden bonus: The promise of higher future earnings. But, unfortunately for today's working high-school students, it seems that that effect may be waning.

A recent paper from economists Charles Baum and Christopher Ruhm found that for a cohort of kids who had jobs in the late 1970s, working for 20 hours a week in the senior year of high school yielded an 8.3 percent wage boost over their non-working high school buddies. For those who had jobs two decades later, in the late 90s, the boost was only 4.4 percent. This was true even when the researchers controlled for family background characteristics and student ability.

The most painful part: “Senior-year employment was predicted to decrease the probability of subsequently working in the relatively low-paid service sector for the 1979 cohort but to increase it for the 1997 cohort,” they write. They also found that the wage boost in the earlier cohort was largely limited to women, for reasons they could not determine.

According to the U.S. Census, 3.2 million high school students work some kind of job—whether it’s summer, part-time, or full-time. This is not the majority: 71 percent of high school students do not work. Historical data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that employment of 16- and 17-year-olds has dropped from 35 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 2009.

The explanation for the wage boost boils down to what economists call an increase in human capital. That is, working in high school gives you new skills (the kind you can’t learn in school) that makes you more productive and valuable at work in the future, and thus leads to higher wages.

Of course, the biggest wage booster of all is still going to college. A Pew report earlier this year found that the wage premium of completing a bachelor’s degree is at a record high. There’s conflicting research on whether high-school employment negatively affects grades and educational attainment, though the conventional wisdom is that working more than 15 hours can hurt your grades. So work in high school, just not too much. And for those who can't finish their homework, better to stay home and study, as even a high-school diploma will likely boost your future earnings more than working in high school.

Presented by

Bourree Lam is an associate editor at The Atlantic. She was previously the editor of Freakonomics.com.

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