Working in Adolescence

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One hallmark of a successful transition to adulthood is the development of career aspirations and an identity as someone who works. It is during adolescence that these issues become particularly salient.

Developmental Roots of Industry, Identity, and Employment

According to Erik Erikson's work in the early 1960s, the primary developmental task of adolescence is to achieve a sense of identity, to determine who one is and what one's place in society will be. This task lays the groundwork for educational and career choices and the eventual attainment of adult self-sufficiency. The roots of the attitudes and skills necessary for the successful resolution of this developmental task of adolescence begin in infancy and early childhood.

Attachment theorists have proposed that infants are genetically endowed to experience satisfaction in exploring and manipulating the environment, a developmental antecedent of employment. In the early 1960s, Erikson, R. Havinghurst, and Donald Super noted the importance of the early childhood years for the development of attitudes and skills associated with working. During the third stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, around age five, children experience pleasure in using tools and interacting with their environment; and during latency, his fourth stage, children internalize a work principle. Havinghurst proposed that between five and ten years of age children establish "identification with a worker" and during early adolescence (ten to fifteen years of age) children acquire habits of industry.

Through schoolwork, chores, and the requirements of hobbies, children learn how to apply themselves, set goals, work in teams, and accomplish tasks. Super concurred that vocational concerns develop gradually over the course of early childhood and then become more salient in adolescence. For Super the primary task of adolescence was the crystallization of a vocational preference, which involves the formulation of ideas about work and self, and could then evolve into an occupational self-concept. He took the position that a vocational self-concept is a reflection of a person's overall self-concept but more specialized in that it shapes educational and employment activities. Research has shown that by seventh grade children have developed work-relevant cognitions, attitudes, and feelings that are quite similar to those of adolescents and adults.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Adolescent Employment

Despite the importance of early childhood and family factors in the development of an adolescent's sense of industry and vocational development, little research has been conducted to determine the specific influences on this key developmental outcome. Researchers have proposed that early positive experiences with employment significantly contribute to the adolescent's emerging sense of industry and identity. Based on belief in the positive benefits of youth employment, federal policy and government legislation have expanded opportunities for youths to develop work experiences (e.g., the Job Training Partnership Act and its forerunner, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973). The goal of encouraging young people to assume part-time employment during their high school years has been widely endorsed for many years. In 1999 Julian Barling and E. Kevin Kelloway determined that the average high school student works the equivalent of a part-time job; by the time of graduation from high school, 80 percent will have held at least one part-time job.

The perceived potential benefits of youth employment include earning money, gaining relevant work experience, achieving autonomy, easing the transition from school to work, and developing work attitudes. Youth employment also provides employers with a ready supply of unskilled and inexpensive labor. Further, parents approve, believing that such experiences foster independence, responsibility, and improved attitudes toward school.

Further endorsements of youth employment come from Katherine Newman, who studied the employment experiences of Harlem youths and published her results in 1996. She found that although many young adults were in low-wage, seemingly dead-end "McJobs," these employment experiences also had many (sometimes hidden) benefits. Despite the fact that these jobs were tiring, boring, stressful, poorly compensated, stigmatized, and offered limited opportunities for advancement, the youths perservered because of a strong work ethic and a desire to develop and sustain an identity as someone who works. Further, these jobs allowed the teens to contribute to the survival of their poverty level households, leading to increased self-esteem and pride. Some youths were motivated by these low-end jobs to save part of their earnings for future educational and job training opportunities, essentially turning a dead-end job into a stepping stone for a career. Newman also found that participation in an employment setting shifted the youths' reference group away from out-of-school peers, into the workplace, and onto employed adult role models.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom regarding the value of youth employment, some researchers have concluded that it can be harmful to academic and social development. For example, Jerald Bachman and John Schulenberg found in their nationally representative sample of high school seniors, that work intensity (the number of hours worked per week) was associated with behavioral problems as well as diminished time for sleep, eating breakfast, exercising, and dating. These findings, however, do not negate the potential for part-time work to be beneficial when experienced under the right circumstances. Defining the optimal type of job and intensity of work experience for producing positive effects in high school seniors is a task for future researchers. In particular, attention needs to be paid to the quality of the work experience in addition to its quantity. Further, Bachman and Schulenberg compared outcomes for employed versus not-employed youth in school. They did not examine the impact of employment specifically for out-of-school youths for whom employment (as opposed to postsecondary education) is the most viable pathway to adult self-sufficiency.

Youth Employment for Out-of-School and Disadvantaged Youth

In light of the importance of youth employment for disadvantaged youths, it is unfortunate that they face what researchers have called a "web of mutually reinforcing circumstances and behaviors" that makes a successful attachment to the labor market extremely difficult. Such circumstances include the deterioration of the labor market in urban communities, overwhelming personal and family issues that would distract even the most dedicated student and worker, and a mismatch between employer demands and the skills of entry-level workers. Indeed, lack of skills and lack of preparation for the workforce have been cited as among the most important reasons for the failure of youths to obtain long-term employment.

Lack of preparation for the transition from school to work is problematic for many minority youths. In general, high school students are ill-prepared for the world of work, a problem that is exacerbated by high school guidance counselors' exclusive focus on postsecondary education. An Educational Testing Service survey published in 1981 found that almost half of all students never talked to a guidance counselor about possible future occupations. These non-college-bound youths received little or no support or guidance in making a successful transition to the work force, often leading to a period of "floundering" as these young adults entered the labor market. As Gary Orfield and Faith Paul noted, "students not bound for college need the most help, receive the least assistance, are equipped with the most limited information, and experience the greatest risks in the job market" (Mendel 1995). Minority youths comprise one of several groups for whom this chaotic entry into the labor market is particularly harmful. According to Richard Kazis, the employment picture for black and Hispanic young Americans who do not make it to college is so bleak that it constitutes a serious school-to-work crisis.

Access to and identification with adults who have developed labor force attachments are also critical to an adolescent's successful entry into employment. Yet Edwin Farrell found in 1990 that at-risk minority youths have limited involvement with gainfully employed adult role models. Their understanding of the process of getting and maintaining employment was often limited, unrealistic, and inaccurate. Taken together, these data paint a picture of disadvantaged youths who are more likely to fail in school and less likely to build a foundation upon which to create an adult life in which they can support themselves and their families.

Demographic Trends and the Future

Demographic trends at the start of the twenty-first century are likely to increase the difficulty that disadvantaged youths will face in finding their place in the labor market. The total number of sixteen- to twenty-four-year-olds in the nation's population is projected to rise steadily through the year 2010, to 38.7 million, almost 7 million more than in 1995. Along with the expansion in the supply of young workers will be the increase in competition for low wage jobs and the increasingly technological nature of even minimum wage jobs. Thus, there will be a continued high incidence of employment and earning problems among many of the nation's out-of-school youths.

Several steps need to be taken to facilitate the successful transition to employment for disadvantaged and out-of-school youths. First, all youths must be encouraged to stay in school, and schools must provide the literacy and interpersonal skills necessary for successful integration into college, vocational training, and employment. Second, career counseling must be expanded to recognize that many high school seniors will not attend postsecondary education but are ready to pursue meaningful employment experiences. Third, intervention programs that have been proven successful at enhancing the employment experiences of disadvantaged and out-of-school youths need to be made available to all eligible individuals. Fourth, youths in minimum wage jobs need to be encouraged to apply a portion of their earnings to further their education and training. And finally, postsecondary educational opportunities need to be made available to all youths regardless of financial income. With these policies, programs, and practices in place, every youth will have a better chance to achieve the key developmental task of adolescence.



Bachman, Jerald G., and John Schulenberg. "How Part-Time Work Intensity Relates to Drug Use, Problem Behaviors, Time Use, and Satisfaction among High School Seniors: Are These Consequences or Merely Correlates?" Developmental Psychology 29 (1993):220-235.

Barling, Julian, and E. Kevin Kelloway, eds. "Introduction." Young Workers. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1993.

Erikson, Erik. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1963.

Farrell, Edwin. Hanging In and Dropping Out: Voices of At-Risk High School Students. New York: Teachers College Press, 1990.

Havinghurst, R. "Youth in Exploration and Man Emergent." In Henry Borow ed., Man in a World of Work. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1964.

Kazis, Richard. Improving the Transition from School to Work in the United States. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum, 1993.

Mendel, Richard. The American School-to-Career Movement: A Background Paper for Policymakers and Foundation Officers. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum, 1995.

Newman, Katherine. "Working Poor: Low Wage Employment in the Lives of Harlem Youth." In Julia A. Graber, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Anne C. Peterson eds., Transitions through Adolescence: Interpersonal Domains and Context. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996.

Orfield, Gary, and Faith Paul. High Hopes, Long Odds. Indianapolis:Indiana Youth Institute, 1994.

Super, Donald E. "Vocational Development in Adolescence and Early Childhood: Tasks and Behaviors." In Donald E. Super, R. Starishevsky, N. Matlin, and J. P. Jordan eds., Career Development: Self Concept Theory. New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1963.

Amy J. L.Baker