A little while ago there was an interesting story in The Sydney Morning Herald (weekend edition 25-26 August 2007) by Andrew West on teenage work in Australia. He cites figures from a US Department of Labour report suggesting that Australia has more teens in the workforce than any other developed country.
Over the period 1995-2005, no less than 60.6 per cent of Australian aged 15-19 were working. This compares to 43.7 per cent in the US, 30 per cent in Germany, 13 per cent in Italy and just 9.1 per cent in South Korea.
Like all statistics, these have to be treated with care. For example, it has always been the case that kids help out in family businesses often without being paid or appearing in workforce numbers. Nevertheless, the figures are interesting.
There are clear cultural differences between countries that affect working patterns. In some countries kids are expected to study; school or post school is seen as a full time occupation in its own right.
This used to be much more the case in Australia. Now kids work because they want to buy things or because they need the income to help pay for study.
High teenage work participation is a two edged sword.
From an employer's viewpoint, it means that kids acquire work discipline. That's good. But it can also mean that the time devoted to study, to the acquisition of knowledge and skills and the capacity to think, is reduced. Here there have been recurrent complaints in Australia from employers about a decline in the standard of, for example, recent graduates.
There is another issue as well.
Australia, along with many other countries, has been suffering from skills shortages. High teenage work participation can lead to lower participation in formal education whether at university or vocational level. There is some evidence that this has been happening in Australia.