What both the left and right get wrong about youth labor

What both the left and right get wrong about youth labor

As happens so often with youth issues, both the political left and right are wrong about the issue of youth labor.

Right wing Arkansas governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has signed the Youth Hiring Act making it easier to hire youth under the age of 16, without having pesky “work certificates” verifying their ages or requiring written parental consent. The bill claims to avoid both bureaucratic and governmental obstructions to young people obtaining work and “restores” parental decision-making. Arkansas now lines up with Arizona, Colorado, and Texas, and Iowa is next.

All hail neo-con free market ideology promoted as parent power! Parents, of course, have never exploited or abused children.

The left’s response, while not wrong to be protective of the exploitation of child labor (there certainly are historical reasons), but neither are we any longer in the middle of the industrial age. Still, the left instantly reclines on dystopic evocations of Dickensian exploitation of young children exhausted, barely clothed, illiterate, and sweating over massive and greasy assembly lines.

The right claims to protect the market and parental authority from governmental overreach. The left seeks governmental protection of children from corporate greed.

But neither the left nor the right value or acknowledge the lived experience of many young people who need to, or who can otherwise thrive, in the labor market. Neither the left nor the right sees young people beyond being either exploited or exploitable.

Successful and gainful youth labor has a long history. Take Ishmael, for instance. I recently interviewed this enterprising high school junior, the only son of Latin American immigrant parents. Ishmael wants to be his own “boss.” After investigating options on YouTube he created his own auto detailing company and now offers his client’s 2 “quality packages” of auto care. Ishmael plans on paying his own way through college.

Long ago, Stewart Tannock’s ethnographic studies documented the skills and capacities of young people as they enacted complex literacy tasks in the fast-food industry. Tannock observed how, under considerable daily pressure, young people in public-facing roles cooperated, collaborated, and even consorted with co-workers to push back against exploitative supervisors.

Before Tannock, historians like the recently deceased Mike Davis, among others, documented the history of newsboys (“newsies”) in the late nineteenth century. Over 300 New York newsboys in 1899 staged a full-on general labor strike in redressing their grievances.

Or take the more recent scholarship of University of Southern California sociologist, Emir Estrada’s Kids at Work. Estrada documents how young people contribute to their families by using social networking software on their phones to help parents navigate street vending. A 14-year-old girl articulated her family role this way: “Si no les ayudo yo, quien?” (If I don’t help them who will?”).

Text Box: Estrada, E. (2019). Kids at work: Latinx families selling food on the streets of Los Angeles (Latina/o sociology series). New York: New York University Press.While the left and right beat themselves up over which public policy is more righteous, real young people, faced with real life challenges, rise every day to demonstrate their capacities for contributing to and fighting for their own experiences in the work world.

And they always have.

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