The UAE government announced teen work permits earlier this month, allowing children aged 15 and older to get part-time jobs. My teenage children think this is terrific news. Similarly, from personal experience, I appreciate the valuable lessons that part-time employment can teach a child.
I was 15 when I got my first part-time job, helping out at a local silk-screen printing company after school. Initially, I was tasked with washing the ink-stained screens after each print run – the job nobody else wanted. However, I later graduated to more sophisticated tasks such as hand-printing T-shirts and corporate letterheads. I even got to develop my designs and use the darkroom – skills I retain to this day.
Thirty years have passed, but I still recall the names of my print shop colleagues: Steve the hippy, John Mac and the two graphic designers whom everyone simply called the Beastie Boys. Beyond the workmates and the workplace banter, also etched in my memory, is that first-ever payday. I recall the overwhelming feeling of autonomy it evoked: this is my money, I earned it, I can spend it how I like. I bought a very fashionable pair of trousers from Topman.
Not everyone, though, is immediately convinced that children working is such a great idea. For some people, any mention of children in the workforce quickly conjures up Dickensian images of malnourished chimney sweeps. Or children in low-income countries, toiling in sweatshops, forced to forsake education to fashion footwear.
However, the UAE's plans are a far cry from all of that. Instead, UAE teens are being encouraged to take part-time jobs to gain real-world work experience, build skills and perhaps learn the value of money.
It is also worth noting that the UAE is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32 of which states that children should be: "protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
Along with these legal protections, children taking part-time jobs in the UAE can also expect to realise a host of psychological, social, and educational benefits. For instance, the workplace can help foster agency (responsibility) and autonomy (independence). For example, if a task is incomplete there are real-world consequences, not just poor grades. Similarly, we might be assigned specific duties, but it is often left up to us how and when we perform them.
In addition to agency and autonomy, many part-time jobs will also help us develop social skills and a sense of in-group belonging. The students in my university courses always complain when they have group-based assignments. I repeatedly tell them that the world of work is one big group project after another - best to get used to it. For teens to have an opportunity to learn the value of teamwork, collaboration and interdependence is invaluable. In many cases, working within a team also gives us a real sense of belonging. Decades of psychological research suggest that this sense of belonging (social identity) helps make us more resilient and greatly contributes to our overall emotional wellbeing. Professor Alexander Haslam, an authority on social identity, writes: "Social identities and the notions of 'us-ness' that they embody and help create are central to health and wellbeing."
Beyond the psychological and social benefits of part-time work, there are educational benefits too. Although time is a finite resource, employment is not necessarily in competition with education; it can be complimentary. Part-time work can, and frequently does, add value to education, making significant contributions to developing the child's personality, talents, physical and cognitive abilities.
There are also possibilities for employers and schools to come together to promote collaborative opportunities. For example, this could involve employers reaching out to schools with a list of part-time positions and detailing the type of learning associated with each role. Similarly, schools might request that employers offer part-time opportunities aligned with particular learning objectives.
The potential benefits of children working part-time are immense. My own teenage experiences of the workplace prepared me well for life after college. I acquired valuable skills, but more importantly, I learned how the world of work works: the hierarchies, cliques, and unwritten rules. My early experience of these things helped me navigate the wonderful and sometimes woeful world of work.