The Kids Are Alright

“When I wrote this song I was nothing but a kid, trying to work out right and wrong through all the things I did. I was kind of practising with my life. I was kind of taking chances in a marriage with my wife. I took some stuff and I drank some booze. There was almost nothing that I didn’t try to use. And somehow I’m alright.”

The Who, Live at the Royal Albert Hall, 2000

Rock and roll has no doubt saved many a kid from an unjust boredom or dysfunctional unrest, just as it has probably toppled many more into an excess of abuse and waste or early use of hearing aids. But that’s an argument of causality, which is to say we need to determine what causes can be clearly traced in an unbroken chain of events from proximate cause to results and effects and distinguish those causes from correlations – connections that are more associate than causal – associated with the cause but not primary producer, if at all, of an effect. If we don’t clearly isolate the cause, we run the risk of treating a cause that doesn’t affect the negative effects we’re trying to cure. But The Kids Are Alright is also a moral argument: how should youth be spent?

Consider, for example, the current rise in legislative efforts to weaken or repeal child labor laws. What’s provoking these new but seemingly archaic and draconian measures? Child labor laws have been implemented over the years to protect children from low wage and excessive work-hour exploitation; workplace injury; and stunted emotional, intellectual, and physical growth. Who would want to repeal such protections for children, and why?

First, we note that violations of the laws have been increasing in recent years. If you’re a business found in violation of a law, one solution might be to try to get the law changed:

According to Pew, the root cause driving attempts to repeal child labor laws is workforce shortage. Business and industry can’t find enough workers. Workers that have historically filled the jobs in question (restaurant and hospitality; unskilled manual labor; assembly line work; industrial laundering, sanitation services) are staying in school longer. But that doesn’t account for the historically large number of missing workers. Where have all the workers gone?

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, there are several reasons for the current workforce shrinkage: increase in family savings fueled by the pandemic; early retirements; lack of access to childcare; and new business starts. And, we might add, the so-called gig economy – which has allowed greater freedoms, flexibility, and opportunity for entrepreneurs. In short, there are currently more jobs than workers, and the reasons are several and varied.

And some see the solution as allowing younger children to work more jobs. But take a look at the industries most affected by the workforce shortages (again, according to the US Chamber of Commerce). Food Service and Hospitality jobs have been hard hit. These are jobs that can’t be worked from home. But not all must-report-for-work jobs have seen high quit ratios.

Not all jobs are created equal, even if the pay might be equal. Who are the industry and business leaders and their pandering legislators trying to repeal child protections? According to Pew (citing EPI), supporters of repealing child labor laws include: “national and state branches of the National Federation of Independent Business, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, as well as lodging and tourism associations, homebuilders and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group.”

These are not necessarily guys and gals all wearing MAGA hats. If we oppose repealing child labor laws, and we find ourselves wanting to criticize the businesses mentioned above, we might ask ourselves how often we support these businesses by buying or using their products or services. As an example that illustrates the problem, consider this, from the same Pew study cited above:

“Arkansas and Tennessee enacted changes last month. A new Arkansas law removes a requirement that children under 16 provide proof of parental consent to work, while the Tennessee law scraps the prohibition on 16- and 17-year-olds working in restaurants that derive more than a quarter of their revenue from alcohol.

“We’re desperately needing some extra workers between the ages of 16 and 17 to work at some of these restaurants,” Tennessee Republican state Rep. Dale Carr said during a February hearing on the legislation, which he sponsored. Carr represents Sevierville, a tourist destination in east Tennessee.

“With Workers Scarce, Some States Seek to Loosen Child Labor Laws,” Pew, 17 April 2023.

Pour your own drinks. Tour your own backyard. Camp out instead of holding up in a hotel. Meantime, where there are labor shortages, businesses should consider how they can attract and retain workers. They need to offer adequate and equitable pay, benefits, job security, safety and protection, and flexibilities they have not previously considered. Business owners and managers need to treat their employees as persons, as humans, with dignity and respect, regardless of their age, yet according to their age. And users of their products and services should recognize their complicity in the economic interconnectedness and responsibilities throughout our consumer society. Then, just maybe, we’ll all be alright.