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For teenagers, jobs can be a way to get work experience, earn some money, and stay out of trouble, all while doing necessary labor. They can also be exploitative and hinder participation in other activities. As historian Tim Wales writes, in the seventeenth century, teenagers in rural England who failed to get jobs—specifically live-in jobs serving on farms—could be subject to criminal penalties.

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For young men and women from about ages fifteen to twenty-four, Wales writes, “going into service” was a common practice, a way to get the money and experience necessary to marry and establish their own households. By one estimate, about 60 percent of people in that age range were servants.

This wasn’t just convention. Under a 1563 law, passed after a deadly wave of influenza reduced the labor supply, teenagers and single young adults could be compelled into service. Enforcement of the law varied over time, but in many cases those found living out of service were either forced to take masters or sent to the house of corrections.

In some cases, even younger children of very poor families could also be forced into “pauper apprenticeships.” Wales writes that this was legally permitted for kids as young as seven but more typically involved young teenagers. To authorities, moving these children into apprenticeship reduced the need for parish relief to impoverished households and instilled work discipline in children who might otherwise live in idleness at home.

But many young people persisted in “living at their own hands,” as sources from the era put it. In the early 1660s, landowner and magistrate Doughty complained that, rather than going into service, girls and young women were remaining in their parents’ homes, spinning, knitting, engaging in the traditional practice of gleaning unharvested crops from farmers’ fields, and—he speculated—perhaps secretly engaging in sex work. With those options available, he warned, they were liable to break away from service at harvest time, just when they were most needed. As for the boys, Doughty was distressed to see many of the most capable and skilled becoming mariners, saving money in the summer and spending the winter at play.

Wales notes that Doughty and others like him in the second half of the seventeenth century were particularly concerned about girls and young women. Courts blamed parents for allowing a daughter to stay “idle” at home, sometimes imprisoning them or taking away any aid they received. However, these young women were important to many families’ household economies. They cared for siblings and helped with livestock, and, at a time of growth in the textiles industry, spinning and knitting at home were increasingly fruitful pursuits.

“The perceived problem may have been less the recalcitrance of the young to enter into service than the enhanced elements of choice and bargaining in their position,” Wales writes.

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The Agricultural History Review, Vol. 61, No. 1 (2013), pp. 19–39
British Agricultural History Society