Commentary

The Debit Side of Adolescent Employment

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The nature of adolescence in American society has undergone a dramatic change over the past 40 years. In increasing numbers, school-age adolescents have entered the workplace, holding part-time jobs after school that consume substantial portions of their afternoons, school nights, and weekends. The large teen-age, part-time labor force that staffs the counters of fast-food establishments, waits on customers in retail stores, assembles parts in industrial settings, and cleans motel rooms and office buildings has become such a familiar part of our social landscape that we may fail to note its unique character or to ponder its larger social significance.

The burgeoning teen-age labor force is unique in many respects. Although adolescents have worked in other eras, those who work today have different social origins than their earlier counterparts. The work they perform is also different, both in kind and in organization. And the student worker per se is a distinctly American phenomenon. In many countries of the Western world, it is virtually unheard of for youngsters to participate intensively in the labor force while in school. The reasons why American teen-agers are flocking to the workplace are embedded in events that have taken place in the school, the family, and the economy-and in the motives, values, and aspirations of young people themselves.

Until recently, the emergence of the world of work in the life of adolescents has gone largely unremarked and unstudied by psychologists and sociologists. In most classic studies of adolescence, the family, school, and peer group are identified as the major settings in which the socialization and development of youth take place. It is clear, however, that this vision needs to be corrected.

The social ecology of adolescence has changed. The workplace, along with the more familiar settings in which children and youth come to maturity, now also gives shape and meaning to the lives of adolescents. Moreover, the addition of this "new" setting to the ecology of adolescence has reverberations in other parts of the social system. The significance of teen-agers' immersion in the workplace, in other words, lies not only in the effects of work on young people themselves but in the effects of their employment on family life, the school environment, and peer relations.

Many people welcome the increased participation of the young in the world of work. Among these advocates of teen-age work one finds youth-policy experts, school critics, guidance counselors, representatives of industries and firms that depend on high-school students to fill part-time jobs, and parents of teen-age workers. They think it is good for youngsters to get their feet wet in the real world. They speak of teen-agers' learning to assume responsibility. They note that working youngsters can help their families financially, or underwrite their own luxury expenditures. Perhaps most important, they interpret job-holding as welcome evidence of a youngster's increasing maturity and believe that working during the high-school years will lead to a smoother transition to adulthood.

This line of thought, which links working with maturity, rests on certain assumptions about how one goes about becoming an adult. Some advocates of youthwork believe that maturity involves the ability to perform roles typically filled by adults. And since one of the chief roles adults occupy is that of worker, jobholding by adolescents is viewed as an important step in the direction of growing up.

Other observers, who espouse a more internal definition of maturity, warn that a superficial ability to play adult roles can be achieved without commensurate development of self-understanding or clarification of social experience. Young people, they caution, may acquire the appearance but not the substance of maturity. What passes for maturity in fact may be pseudomaturity.

In their view, true maturity requires the development of complex cognitive structures, including a stable sense of who one is; how one got to be that way; what the world is, and should be, like; and how one can "put it all together" in a coherent and meaningful way of life. These accomplishments come about over the course of adolescence and young adulthood, they believe, as a result of strenuous introspection, active engagement with others, experimentation in a variety of social roles, conflict, and often grievous (but nonetheless useful) mistakes. Heavy commitment to the role of worker may interfere with this time-consuming, unpaid, and vitally important work of adolescence.

The merits of these competing perspectives on adolescent work cannot be judged without recourse to empirical data. As we noted before, social scientists have been slow to turn their attention to the adolescent workplace and bring research to bear on issues arising from adolescents' increased labor-force activity. Deeply rooted convictions about the positive force that work exerts on people's lives--convictions that form part of a "dominant value configuration" in American culture- have made it difficult for us to look at youthwork with a critical eye.

Over the past five years, however, a number of researchers have taken an interest in what adolescents do at work and what working does to them. The findings constitute a challenge to popular wisdom and conventional belief. Some of these findings will surprise those who believe that hefty doses of work experience are a cure for an assortment of adolescent vagaries.

Among the most striking of these discoveries are that extensive part-time employment during the school year may undermine youngsters' education; that working leads less often to the accumulation of savings or financial contributions to the family than to a higher level of luxury consumer spending; that working appears to promote, rather than deter, some forms of delinquent behavior; that working long hours under stressful conditions leads to increased alcohol and marijuana use; and--the coup de grace--that teen-age employment, instead of fostering respect for work, often leads to increased cynicism about the pleasures of productive labor. Findings such as these lead us to conclude that the benefits of working to the development of adolescents have been overestimated, while the costs have been underestimated.

We cannot be certain that youthwork had more positive consequences in the past. We believe, however, that insofar as working today may be unproductive for many youngsters, or have negative consequences for their development, the fault lies largely in the kinds of jobs we make available to youth and with the broader social context of their employment. Once both similar and relevant to adult work, adolescent work is now, for the most part, totally different from the type of work youngsters will do in the future. Once motivated by the economic needs of the family and the community, most adolescent work today represents "luxury" employment, of which adolescents themselves are the chief beneficiaries. And the workplace, once an arena where the generations were united in common tasks, is now an age-segregated adolescent stronghold. Under these conditions, we argue, involvement in a job may not advance the transition to adulthood so much as prolong youngsters' attachment to the peer culture.

Stated more broadly, extensive commitment to a job may interfere with the work of growing up. In a society where it is possible to make a different life from that of one's parents, and where the diversity of choices that lie before most youngsters is truly staggering, adolescents need time for identity clarification. From this perspective, psychoanalyst Erik Erikson has written of the adolescent's need for a "psychosocial moratorium"--a period of relative freedom from the kinds of roles and responsibilities that curtail identity exploration, a period in which there is time to ponder what sort of person one really is, try out different aspects of the self, and explore ways of fitting oneself into meaningful social roles.

Excessive commitment to a job may pose an impediment to development, by causing adolescents to spend too much time and energy in a role that is too constraining and involves tasks that are too simple, unchallenging, and irrelevant to their future to promote development. Excessive involvement in work may promote instead what sociologist David Riesman, in a different context, has called an "adjusted blandness" on the part of adolescents, at a time in life when curiosity, imagination, and combativeness may auger better for young people themselves and for the improvement of society. Too much time in the adolescent workplace is likely to mean too little time for exploration--including exploration of better, more adult jobs that do not offer pay; for discovering academic and extracurricular interests that are satisfying; for testing out changing conceptions of oneself; and for reflection that leads to the meaningful integration of one's experiences. Sheer lack of time or freedom, for the sake of getting on the payroll early, may interfere with the important psychosocial work of adolescence.

The crux of the argument is that undue emphasis has been placed on the value of work experience to adolescents--and unfounded hope pinned on its singular developmental benefits. Some readers may think to dismiss our argument as "middle class" in perspective: naive about the realities of life that many young people face, irrelevant to all but a privileged (or overprivileged) segment of the population, and unduly protectionist. We believe that such criticism misses the point.

Most youth who work, or work long hours, do not do so primarily out of dire economic need. In fact, youth from the lowest income strata are the least successful in obtaining school-year employment; and fewer than 1 in 10 adolescents who hold a job during the school year contribute a substantial portion of their paycheck to the support of their families. Because youngsters from all social classes work after school and on weekends, our arguments pertain to youth from a broad social spectrum, who will pursue a variety of paths after high school.

Insofar as we question the value of extensive employment during adolescence, moreover, it is not because we see adolescents as too fragile for the rigors of the workplace. Rather we feel that they may be bypassing the equally rigorous, but unpaid, work of growing--work that requires exploration, experimentation, and introspection. These activities, along with the concept "identity formation," have the ring of class and privilege. There is no intrinsic reason, however, that they should be the exclusive province of the well-to-do. To the extent that overcommitment to work stands in the way of these experiences, it is not good for adolescents, whatever their social circumstances.

Of course, we recognize that some adolescents desperately need their paycheck in order to assist an impoverished family; and some youth have such overwhelming intellectual or psychosocial handicaps that experimentation and introspection are impossible, and choice illusory. But for the majority of teen-agers, the value of working needs to be weighed against the payoff from other activities.

And for all adolescents who work—especially those who must work for economic Reasons--we need to consider what makes for "better" work. Most youth can profit, presumably, from good work experience in suitable amounts. None will profit from an overdose of low-quality work experience that deprives them of their full measure of identity development.

The experiences we offer adolescents and encourage them to master during the crucial pre-adult years help determine the assets and debits they will bring to adulthood.

Vol. 06, Issue 14, Pages 17, 24

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