The Enactment of Child Labor Laws

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The first ingredient to mention in the growth of adolescence was the enacting (or passing) of child labor laws. Obviously, these were laws that made it illegal to employ persons below certain ages. Additional laws limited the hours or pay for young people. Though there were advantages of this legislation, it ultimately served to lengthen the period of childhood since early teenagers, for example, could no longer work full time. Because they were not allowed to work, or at least had a significant reduction in possible work hours, they were economically dependent on their parents.

One of the obvious reasons for child labor laws was abuse, or at least what was presumed to be abuse. For many immigrant families, frontier families, and other households with limited income, parents often depended on their children just for sheer survival. “Whether it was in the mills and mines, farms and ranches, everybody–young and old–had to work” (Hine, 121). Employers knew that families were dependent on whatever jobs they provided so they could afford to pay minimal attention to workplace conditions while having little sympathy for the long work days required.

Perhaps the poster child for this problem was the “breaker boy,” a young person probably between the ages of ten and fourteen who worked for coal mining companies. These breaker boys would stand over a series of channels and conveyor belts and look for pieces of rock among the crushed coal as it was transported out of the mine. They would have to stay close to the belts since slate and coal are so difficult to distinguish. After breathing coal dust all day and getting covered from head to toe in black soot, these young people were typical illustrations for advocates of child labor legislation.

But hard work for long hours with little pay was not the only reason for the creation of laws that limited work for young people.

As technology improved many jobs performed by young people became automated or at least unnecessary. For example, before the introduction of the recording cash register big department stores had “cash boys” or “cash girls.”

[Since] it was risky to allow clerks throughout the sprawling store to handle money…when the clerks finished writing up an order, they would yell, ‘Cash!’ and one of the uniformed teenagers would run and pick up a basket containing the buyer’s money, a sales slip, and often the item as well. The item was brought to the wrapping desk, the money to a cashier, who would place change in the basket, and all would be returned to the customer. … During the 1870’s … department stores were the single largest employers of big-city twelve to sixteen year olds. … But in 1902 Macy’s installed eighteen miles of brass pneumatic tubes and rendered the cash boys and girls obsolete. (Hine, 127-128)

It is not difficult to imagine many other ways that technology changed the workforce structure. This too created need for child labor laws, not to protect the sons – but the fathers! “In some industries, new machines made it possible for factories to lay off skilled workers and replace them with young men in their teens whose wages were considerably less. As a teenager, you might endanger your father’s job. It would be worse, though, if your father lost his job to someone else’s son” (Hine, 125). Laws that limited wages and hours for young people protected employment for the head of the household.

In addition, some educators lobbied to keep pay for teenagers low so that they wouldn’t be tempted to enter the job force and become independent prematurely.

These factors and others made severe cuts into the employment opportunities for young people. And so it was at the turn of the century, when technology began to eliminate youths’ jobs, that intense concern about the welfare, education and labor of people in their teens began to emerge. Since school was not yet required for everyone (a foreshadowing of ingredient number two), and since jobs were unavailable, there were not too many better options than to hang out with your buddies and find some trouble.

Keep in mind, however, that for thousands of years it was not this way. Young people commonly worked with their parents or beside a master as an apprentice until they could become independent, which was the clear-cut goal. For most of human history, let alone American history, child labor was not a social horror but simply a fact of life. The labor of young people – especially teenagers – has typically not been an abomination but a necessity (see Hine, 58).

I am not arguing that we should seek to find full-time employment for every eight year old, nor for each twelve year old or fifteen year old and so on. I am not suggesting that if every teenager had a full-time job all the problems of immaturity and irresponsibility among youth would be fixed. But the aversion of most “adolescents” to work, and the typical teenager taken-for-granted expectation of someone else providing for them should at least cause us to consider if the ways our culture has chosen to “protect” its youth from work has also , perhaps unintentionally, “protected” them from maturity.