Front Page Titles (by Subject) Education, Labor Markets, & Controlled Youth - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2
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Education, Labor Markets, & Controlled Youth - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1980, vol. 3, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Education, Labor Markets, & Controlled Youth
“Education and Labor Markets at the Turn of the Century.” Politics and Society 9, no. 1(1979):103–122.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what accounts for the interrelationships between an expanding, industrial economy and the establishment of the modern state educational structure, especially the high school? Prior to 1900, most youth left school to enter the labor market before their mid-teens. From 1900 to 1930, however, child labor sharply declined and the years of school attendance rose. Much of the move to the school system was not voluntary and the compulsory attendance laws provoked much discussion. Two factors explain the decline in child labor. (1) Technological innovation reduced the demand for unskilled and young labor. (2) The shift of labor from the farms and immigration during this time also reduced demand for youth labor, although it increased the supply of unskilled labor available for other jobs.
Young people did not choose to stay in school because the labor market was drying up; this is suggested by the need for a coercive school attendance law. Advocates of compulsory schooling and opponents of child labor had their greatest triumph during this period because business withdrew its previous opposition to these measures. An exception to this was the South where immigrant labor was still scarce and firms desired child labor.
Why did business prefer immigrants to children? Several reasons for the preference were: the immigrants were more mobile (mostly young adult single males); they would accept lower wages; new technologies made complex, sophisticated machinery more common and children were unsuitable for handling such machinery; and finally, immigrants were more docile and uncomplaining.
We can speculate why reformers pushed for a change. Besides simple good intentions, an economic inducement was the fact that high schools taught skills for white collar occupations. Many reformers were from the middle class and the parents may have wanted their children in these positions. The middle class, feeling threatened from “below” (with the influx of immigrants) and from “above” (with the rise of the corporation and the decline of self-employment opportunities), may have used the schools as a mechanism for creating jobs within the modern economy.
This explanation for the economic and educational changes during the period seems an improvement over the “Human Capital” and Marxian explanations. The “Human Capital” theory argues that the increased years in school was a rational response to changing economic conditions; but this does not explain why so much coercion was needed. The Marxian explanations argue that monopoly capitalism required new modes of control—within the work process (job hierarchies) and outside of it (the schools). This theory operates on too grand a level by ignoring local changes, and it also ignores the motivation of reformers who were mostly middle class, not capitalists.