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School holidays, child labour and youth crime

The BBC, anticipating the upcoming school holidays in the UK – lasting several weeks – has a news item up about the soaring cost of providing facilities for children to give them something to do. The story does not address the crucial question of why the cost is soaring. Is it increased regulation of child-care staff, or what? But beyond that, there clearly is a problem here, particularly for youngsters who are entering their teens and quickly find themselves getting bored after the first flush of pleasure of having free time wears off. When I was a kid, I was incredibly lucky to be brought up in a part of the world where I could help my parents run our family farm. At the age of 13 or 14 I was allowed to drive some of the farm machinery during the annual harvest. Under current UK health and safety regulations, all this would be made illegal, I suspect. I was paid an actual weekly wage based on the hours I worked on the farm. I remember thinking how cool that was. Many of my mates at school had summer jobs of various kinds, played some sports, went biking up to the coast, etc.

It seems to me that in part of the discussion about what “should be done” about feral kids armed with knives, there ought to be a recognition that one of the main problems that young people face in and outside school is boredom. And that can be cured, possibly, by working. We have to overcome our strange squeamishness over the employment of minors in actual jobs. I think that the rules and regulatory burdens should be relaxed so that apprenticeships become much easier for an employer to provide. I think some, if not all, of the young tearaways who are so worrying policymakers might actually feel proud of having a job, of earning money, of being able to brag about this to their lazier friends.

And please, dear commenters, do not tell me that all this is optimistic pie-in-the-sky speculation. We have a significant problem in the UK of young people who are a, being forced to stay in school well beyond the age at which they wish and can learn anything, and b, denied the opportunity to work, and c, becoming attracted to the fake charms of gangs and violence. By rejecting our horror of teen-labour, we might help to fix some of these problems.

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29 comments to School holidays, child labour and youth crime

  • Manuel II Paleologos

    Is it still legal to employ teenagers to deliver newspapers?

    I used to earn £2.10 a week for delivering the Lancashire Evening Telegraph every weekday (about 3 hours work total), which was enough to get into football matches. Then I hit 16 and earned a whopping £1.41 per HOUR at McDonalds. Trouble was, then I couldn’t go to matches any more as I was working. That’s life though, isn’t it?

    Not sure why the back-breakingly tough newspaper round (involving a lot of cycling on very steep hills) was OK for a 15 year old, but wiping tables at McDonalds wasn’t.

  • WalterBoswell

    Damn straight. From 12 years upwards I was lucky enough to have not one but two older brothers who’d take me to work with them over the summer holidays.

    When I wasn’t stacking bricks and digging trenches I was cleaning up after tree surgeons (or lumber-jacks as I called them).

    The importance of that simple lesson that hard work equals money and money equals more independence cannot be emphasised enough.

    I can honestly say, without being overly nostalgic or dramatic, that that first week of summer in ’88 when I was allowed to buy a leather jacket costing the grand sum of 80 punt (20 a day, 5 days work, throw a score to the ma’) with money I’d accumulated from a weeks hard graft on a building site was one of the best moments of my life*.

    *Excluding of course all the later moments that were way better due to girls, drugs, booze and rock ‘n roll.

  • An excellent summary. Goes nicely together with reducing school leaving age to 14 or something for those kids that hate school.

  • I suspect a lot of the child labour laws came into place when the industrial revolution was in its infancy (or just before), where a great deal of manual labour was indeed required, and maltreatment of children was rampant. I got nothing to say about sweatshops in 3rd world countries, except that it’s possible the wages there are still better than elsewhere.

    Now, though? I’ve heard of some proposals whereby legislatures are only allowed a set number of laws; wanna make a new law? Get rid of an old one first!. I suspect child labour law can be looked at and expunged – or at least given a massive diet.

  • Laird

    No argument from me on the benefits of gainful employment, but a tangential question: why does the government feel that it’s its job to provide entertainment to the kiddies?

  • nick

    Jobs held from age 12 : 5
    Continuous years of employment : 20
    Knife fights : 0

    Employed people are usually too busy to get up to mischief.

  • Well, I’m a professional knife-fighter so I’m conflicted here.

    OK, seriously, (BTW I’m on most weekends in the gambling dens of Bangkok, after the Elvis impersonator and before the ping-pong ball girl), there are two things that nark me to distraction that the yoof of today say (are conditioned to say?)

    1. When knocked-up at 14. “We didn’t have enough sex-education, innit?”

    How much do you need? The basics are pretty rudimentary now aren’t they?

    2. “There’s nuthin’ to do around here”.

    I grew up in a place where there really wasn’t much to do in the sense of “stuff laid on” but me and me liitle mates always found something to do. We had Lego and bikes and played soldiers and then when we got older there was girls and all sorts of stuff. It really winds me up something chronic when I hear this coming from some slack-jawed kid from a city where there is tons of stuff to do.

    In answer to your question Laird. It’s because the government never wants children out of their clutches for a minute. We have a National Curriculum that starts at Year 0, remember. Unless properly guided they might become libertarians or something.

  • Ham

    Nick M,

    I remember reading Margaret Thatcher respond to some of those slack-jaws by saying something like: ‘what are you talking about? There’s litter all over the street, your garden is unkept, there’s graffiti on the school playground…there’s lots to do!’

    Unfortunately, the cynical sniggering that follows from the likes of the Fabian Society at the sound of a response like that says all we need to hear.


    Good post, and don’t hide the optimism. I wonder, though, who is to blame. Is it employers unwilling to hire youngsters or the yoof unwilling to work? I can’t say, but a sort of vicious circle explanation wouldn’t surprise me.

  • Ham,
    It isn’t just work stuff though. There’s always fun stuff too. If someon can’t profitably amuse themselves in a city the size of Manchester then I despair.

    Point taken though. There’s also tons of work to do.

  • Trouble was, then I couldn’t go to matches any more as I was working. That’s life though, isn’t it?

    That you can be time-rich and money-poor or money-rich and time-poor, but seldome time-rich and money-rich is one of the most important lessons of life, I think. Just about as important as “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”.

  • Tom

    Don’t forget, the reason we have long summer holidays is because of child labour. So all the children can go out and labour in the fields.

  • Exactly Tom. Either keep them in school through the summer, or let them work. I’d rather let them work.

  • Ham

    Nick M,

    I don’t know that constant ‘fun’ is all that satisfying. Cleaning up your street might not be very exciting itself, but the sense of pride and achievement it produces would certainly be worth it. Good luck trying to convince many of them to try it.

    I have younger brothers that are in the situation described here. They don’t have any work and don’t seem very interested in looking, at least not until the autumn. The local supermarkets and farms are usually a depository for teens looking for summer jobs, but they are already well stocked with, frankly, better quality immigrant labour. Where is the market for sixteen year old boys’ work?

  • Ian B

    I agree with the general view of this post, but I think there’s a major mistake made when we start to talk about “boredom”. I don’t think this has anything to do with boredom in a normal sense. But it seems the only explanations offered in the political debate are “they do bad things because they’re evil” and “they do bad things because they’re bored“. But suggesting boredom as a motivation trivialises what’s going on; people snort and say “bored? I’ll teach these runts the meaning of bored!” Very few of us outside progressivism have much truck with a lad standing over the corpse of another saying he did it because he was bored. We need a better explanation than that.

    Firstly, we need to remember that the majority of youngsters, however bored, don’t go around knifing each other. It’s a pretty awful thing to claim an entire generation are degenerate thugs because of the actions of a few. But if there is an increase in the propensity of teenagers to kill each other, it’s worth exploring why. I believe the answer, which ties in with this article, is what one might term state infantilisation.

    Growing up is a gradual thing. We all do it at different rates, and there isn’t one moment when a switch is thrown like being a Cylon, and you suddenly go “Criminy! I’m an adult today!” But the state acts as if this is the case and has been noticably pushing this moment later and later in life. My dad left school and started work at 14. I left school at 18, then spent a year at college. Increasing numbers of people are staying as children in higher education until their 20s. It used to be legal for a girl to get her kit off in a gentleman’s magazine at 16; that is now 18 and the 16 year old is now legally still a child. There’s a probably unstoppable push to raise the drinking age to 21. And so on.

    Once young people get past puberty, their internal drives push them to want to start being adults. They want to do adult things; they want independence, money, social status (and indeed sex as well). But they are increasingly denied the chance to do any of those things (well, except the last one, maybe). They can’t work, can’t earn their own money etc. They want to be out and about in the world, but are told to remain children at school. Remembering my own teenage, I was a harmless nerdy lad, heh, but nonetheless I wanted to be out of the family home; me and my mates used to just “go out” then wander around talking etc because you want to be away from the nest. You’re trying to develop some “adulthood”. I was also lucky in that I’d started doing some work at my local theater from just before I was 15, so for the first time had my own money to spend. I was cautiously climbing the developmental rungs.

    The key thing is that teenagers are trying to acquire social status as they instinctively know that they need this to have social success in life. Because as a society we are denying them “normal” ways to do that; e.g. starting work and getting an income, they create their own artificial “adult” society which emulates adulthood without being integrated into the real world; thus they collect in gangs, drink and take drugs (maybe sell drugs, for that financial independence) and show off to each other in simple tribal ways- with violent thuggery, since it is encoded in our masculine genes to show “warrior prowess”. Various socieites have in the past recognised the needs of young men to become men, and founded social instutions and structures which have channeled their growth into adulthood in positive ways- rites of passage which declare manhood (notably, at an age around or just past puberty e.g. bar-mitzvah at 13) and impress upon the young man that he has now inherited the responsibilities of manhood and must act accordingly. Over the past few decades we have effectively dismantled such things; manhood itself is ridiculed, teenagers are cut off from adults who would guide them into society etc. In the past a young man might start drinking in the company of his older workmates (and pay the price of ridicule for getting overly drunk), but in the process learning his position as a junior man among senior males. Now he hangs around in the park swigging cheap lager and trying to impress his peers by vandalism and violence.

    It’s not boredom. It’s suppressed adulthood, forcing its way out against artifical constraints. And there’s a class problem here too; children of wealthier parents will have more money, more things to do, places to go, social options. The young of the underclass simply have nowhere else to go except the streets. The lad who isn’t university material doesn’t have a hope of future status to ameliorate his passions; if he wants to gain social status he’s going to have to gain it in his direct peer group and that crudely means being leader of the gang.

    Progressives always think the answer is more artificial social structures- “we’ll build them a youth club”. But young men striving for personal power aren’t impressed in the least by the Youth Disco under the watchful eye of a beardy social worker. They’re trying to be men. They’re sick and tired of being “kids”. We’ve destroyed the normal means by which they can do that. There aren’t the respectable working class jobs there used to be- as an apprentice in a trade for instance. They can drink, shag and sell drugs, and display their manhood with violence, or they can wear a humiliating uniform while asking “you want fries with that?” What would you choose?

  • Ian B

    Oh for crying out loud, smited again. Can somebody please tell me what criteria smitebot is using and why I keep triggering it? Considering Nick M’s excellent but often fruitily worded contributions seem to get past it, what am I doing? Or did something get me on a special list the bot keeps? I can’t see anything in the post above (which of course as I type this hasn’t appeared yet) that ought to trigger a spambot. What gives?

  • Laird

    Very interesting observation, Ian B. I shall have to give it some thought.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    IanB, frustration is perhaps a better word then than boredom, since what you identify is frustrated adulthood. It of course plays into the themes I mentioned.

    It is astonishing, really, how few people in public life have figured this out. Almost no politician I can think of ever addresses this issue of what happens when the journey to adult maturity is made longer and longer by legislation, or whatever. Think on this: by the time he was 18, my great-grandfather was working in the mines and had a small farm by his early 20s. My dad was an RAF navigator on jets at the age of 21. Yet these days, one gets the impression – perhaps unfairly – that people of such an age are not considered able to be put in charge of an electric toothbrush.

  • Ian B

    It is astonishing, really, how few people in public life have figured this out

    I don’t think that’s any more astonishing than the Church not enquiring into whether God exists or not 🙂 Our rulers aren’t interested in finding out such a truth, because they’ve already decided what the truth is and they’ve no interest in it being anything different from that.

  • MarkE

    Ian B

    I think you touched on something important, but then almost glossed over it, when you remarked:

    In the past a young man might start drinking in the company of his older workmates (and pay the price of ridicule for getting overly drunk), but in the process learning his position as a junior man among senior males. Now he hangs around in the park swigging cheap lager and trying to impress his peers by vandalism and violence.

    The apprentice having a pint with workmates is joining a community which includes men of all ages. The young man trying to impress his peers is in a community comprised exclusively of children. Mixing with adults, the young man will aspire to their status, and understand he can achieve that only be earning their respect. Earning the respect of older men is harder than earning that of ones peers, because they have wider experience from which they judge you.

  • Johanthan Pearce

    Our rulers aren’t interested in finding out such a truth, because they’ve already decided what the truth is and they’ve no interest in it being anything different from that.

    What, you mean that every single MP, or any public figure, has never thought it might be a good idea to reverse this process? I find that astonishing. Of course, given the class from which most of our MPs spring and the incestuous world in which they operate with their media chums, business cronies and the like, it might be hard for them to think unthinkable thoughts about adulthood, growing up and so on. But there are some politicians, surely, who can realise there might be a problem. Frank Field, or for that matter, Iain Duncan Smith.

  • Ian B

    Johnathan, I can’t speak for every politician and don’t try to. I’m talking about the received wisdom, cultural hegemony, groupthink, metanarrative, whatever, kind of thing.

  • Ian B

    MarkE, thanks for highlighting that, I entirely agree with what you said. It’s a big issue this and comment space on a blog is insufficient to cover it all; one would need to write a book really to cover it all. I occasionally fantasise about doint that, then I remember who I am and that nobody would read it anway, heh.

  • Ian, the only reason I might not read your book is that it might make me even more depressed than I already am:-P

    Seriously though, that was an excellent comment there, in that it explains the issue very clearly and concisely, better than any book could do.

  • And MarkE read my mind with his remark.

  • MarkE

    Ian B

    Write the damned thing. Have you any idea how much total dross gets published in this country every year? If there is room for [fill in your own choice here], there os a market for your manifesto. There is a market for common sense, witness the success of (for example) How mumbo jumbo conquered the world and similar titles. You may not get rich on teh royalties, but you might start a debate.

    You might even get a (probably bad) review in The Guardian. Paradoxically that could be a major result as Guadianistas learned there is another way.

  • The only quibble I would have with your post is the reference to apprenticeships. Obviously, it is ideal if a young person can do something useful and learn a trade at the same time, but it is rarely attractive to an employer to teach someone and pay him too. Also, the role of the employer in that case is more the parent/teacher/”youth worker” type role that the young person is already familiar with, rather than the role of a true employer who pays hard cash for value received, which is what they really need to learn about.

    The most important thing to learn is what it means to work at a job and earn a living, or even part of one. Specific skills are a bonus, and in fact easier to pick up later.

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