top of page

How Teenagers Shaped Women’s Historical Job Opportunities


Most academic discussions of women’s economic inequality emphasize the struggle between men and women for jobs. This is largely a correct focus; it has been the primary emphasis of most of my own work on gender. Women’s power is based on access to personal income. Personal income comes from employment. Employers determine who gets hired for what jobs. Employers have historically reserved many occupations for men. The gender progress that has occurred since 1870 largely involved increasing the percentage of jobs in the economy for which employers would consider hiring women rather than men.

It turns out that this battle for employment was a lot more complex than was originally thought. There was not a two-way battle of women vs. men. There was a three-way battle of women vs. men vs. teenagers. The independent dynamics of the youth labor market was instrumental in defining women’s economic opportunities.

There has always been a division of the job market into good jobs and bad jobs. Call this the primary and secondary sector if you like. (This is what dual labor market theorists did in the 1970’s and 1980’s.) Primary jobs are high pay, high status, highly skilled and until recently, permanent/lifetime. No one wanted to lose wonderful highly valued employees with hard-to-replace skills. Generally, white men of the preferred ethnic group and social class were hired for the primary jobs.

Less “worthy” people got the secondary jobs. The secondary jobs were low pay, low status and their workers were considered expendable. Because you did not want to give pay increases to these “less essential” individuals, you hired people who you hoped would leave voluntarily after a short time.

Historically, these less valued short-termers were children or adolescent males. Guilds had their apprentices. Boys would serve as indentured servants. Later on, there would be messenger boys, or office boys. Child’s status allowed them to receive a child’s pay. When they became adults, they might be promoted to a more difficult job and given an adult’s pay. Or they would just leave on their own or get fired. They would be replaced with another cheap inexpensive body. Children became one of the most important sources of cheap labor in Victorian Britain and the U.S.

Rising levels of education wrecked the juvenile labor market – and by doing so, opened up employment to women. As high school education became more available, and larger percentages of young people were attending college, the supply of juvenile workers simply dried up. Employers could no longer find armies and armies of twelve year olds who were willing to serve as telegraph boys or fifteen year olds who wanted to be gophers in offices. Around the 1870’s, employers began to complain about the difficulty of hiring “boy labor” for their bottom tier positions. They needed another source of workers willing to work for low wages.

Women fit this need. Woman had historically done all sorts of economic work before the Industrial Revolution. Remember that before the Industrial Revolution, most people lived in rural areas. The dominant economic activity was farming. If there was some sort of manufacturing done, it was often done on someone’s farm as an extra money maker. Think about a blacksmith shop in a barn, or a farmer’s wife weaving cloth as a supplementary activity to get through the winter.

During the Industrial Revolution, laws were passed to restrict women from working in factories and children from working at all. However, women were always willing to earn extra money and improve their lives. In the 1820’s and 30’s, women took dreary low-paid work as seamstresses or laundresses. They accepted these positions not because these were particularly attractive forms of employment, but because in the regulatory environment of the Victorian age, this is all there was.

As boy labor became increasingly unavailable, employers began to rethink the question of the employment of women. This was easier to do in bottom tier jobs in new occupations without any pre-existing cultural sex-type. As administrative work increased, there was a rising demand for secretaries. As schooling increased, there was a rising demand for teachers. As medical care improved, there was a rising demand for nurses. Note that nursing is highly skilled, difficult work. Women were not given the job because it was highly skilled. They were given nursing jobs because nurses are lower on the medical hierarchy than doctors.

Much of the capitalist world moved to a regime where permanent high skilled jobs were male and temporary lower skilled jobs were female. Employers encouraged high turnover among women to reduce the number of salary increases they would have to give them. Every time a girl or woman left, it was an opportunity to hire a young recruit at the bottom of the salary scale; every time a woman left the company made money. To maximize female turnover, employers insisted on hiring girls between ages sixteen and twenty-five. They were hoping the women would leave work on the occasion of their marriage, giving them a chance to recycle the labor force. A woman taking a job at the age of forty could be expected to work until age sixty-five – a career of twenty-five years. An eighteen-year-old might only stay four or five years.

Some companies further encouraged women to leave by instituting marriage bars. These were formal company rules that required women to resign on the occasion of their marriage. In Britain before World War II, this was standard policy for government employers and for the railways. In Japan, from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, marriage bars existed in nearly every major firm. Women were given the choice of either having careers or families. Under marriage bars, they could not have both.

What ended the rise of the permanent-male/impermanent-female system?

The de-skilling of work associated with fast food.

We normally think about McDonald’s in terms of what its hamburgers have done to food quality. However, McDonald’s had a far greater effect on society through what it did to labor skill. Short order restaurants usually involved a mix of high skill and middle skill workers. Short order cooks had to be highly skilled to handle lunch time rushes. Waitstaff was middle-to-lower skill depending on how much rapport had to be built with customers.

McDonald’s totally mechanized the fast food production process as part of its strategy for generating a reliable “the-same-anywhere” hamburger. One effect of this re-engineering was the creation of a restaurant that virtually required no skill. The fryers practically cooked the French Fries by themselves. Making burgers was extremely simple because all patties were premade and scientifically the same. No knowledge was required to work the cash register since there was one obvious button for anything that could be ordered. The result is that fast food establishments were able to hire no-skill labor forces – workers with much less training than that of the typical secretary, stenographer or school teacher.

As a result, fast food companies wanted the most rapid turnover possible. High school students were ideal for this because most would leave the company on the occasion of their graduation. Students of both genders could be used. Boys were put on the grill. Women were put on customer service. But this was not a hard and fast rule and swaps were made routinely. The high school students earned much less than did adult women.

Other companies saw the advantage of this hyper-engineering for standardization and deskilling. Convenience stores simplified the running of neighborhood shops by moving all of the merchandising and ordering processes to corporate headquarters. The person in the store only had to run a computerized cash register. This dramatically reduced the skill involved, making it suitable for teen labor. Broadbased de-skilling in the service sector led to a dramatic increase in the demand for teenaged labor – a demand that was essentially gender neutral. Women were no longer the cheap labor force of choice.

Feminism and equal opportunity legislation were forces that paralleled this trend. It is easy to exaggerate how much the gendered division of labor has changed between 1960 and the present day. Many jobs that were all male then are all male now. Many jobs that were all female then are all female now. There are not very many female HVAC installers or auto mechanics. There are not very many male day care workers.

But the division of labor within firms of long-tenured high-skill males and short-tenured low-skill females has largely come to an end. Adults are given high-skill long-term jobs. Teenagers and college students are given lower-skill short-term jobs. There is a population of part-time jobs that can be held by either males or females. In the 1960’s part-time workers were generally female. Now they can be either gender.

The lesson here is that when we look at questions of social inequality, be they male vs. female, white vs. black, or Anglo vs. Latino, we all too often view these questions through the prism of the dynamics of the balance of power within those two groups exclusively. Employers do not simply consider male vs. female or black vs. white in hiring. They consider the entire broad range of candidates they could get. What happens on social dimension X can affect the balance of economic opportunities on social dimension Y and social dimension Z.

Will current attempts to limit the employment of immigrants have any effect on the balance of hiring between racial groups or the balance of hiring between genders?

Wait and see.

For More Information

For the original story of women versus boys in office work, see my own Process of Occupational Sex-typing in Great Britain, especially Chapter 8.

For a general portrait of the exclusion and reintroduction of women to the labor force, see Alice Kessler Harris’s Women Have Always Worked: An Historical Overview.

On the fast food revolution, see Robin Leidner’s Fast Food, Fast Talk: Service Work and the Routinization of Everyday Life.

For the general process of de-skilling, see Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital: Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. Note that Braverman sees the de-skilling process as starting earlier than the McDonald’s era and extending to more sectors than fast food. In other industries, the Braverman account of relentless de-skilling can actually be challenged. In the sectors where the teen labor force is prevalent, Braverman is right on target.

bottom of page