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Working in Adolescence

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.

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8Working in Adolescence - Developmental Roots Of Industry, Identity, And Employment, Advantages And Disadvantages Of Adolescent Employment, Youth Employment For Out-of-school And Disadvantaged Youth