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Early work as a source of developmental discontinuity during the transition to adulthood

  • JEYLAN T. MORTIMER (a1) and JEREMY STAFF (a2)
Abstract

From a developmental perspective, work has been considered as both a deleterious and salutary experience. According to one prominent view, part-time work places adolescents at risk because it limits participation in more developmentally beneficial activities and confronts them with stressors for which they are not yet ready. If this were the case, teenage part-time work would be “stress sensitizing,” lowering thresholds of reactivity to subsequent stressors and increasing the risk of poor young-adult mental health. As a result, early work experience could interfere with adequate preparation for adulthood. A more optimistic perspective, shared by some social scientists and most parents, is that employment for the young person signifies progress in moving toward adulthood and promotes adaptation to the work environment. Challenges at work are considered to be “steeling,” fostering coping resources that alleviate the detrimental effects of subsequent stressors, especially those encountered in the workplace. These processes would promote resilience and psychological well-being in early adulthood. This research examines these alternatives, using data from the Youth Development Study (1988–2000) covering the period from adolescence (age 14–15) to early adulthood (age 26–27). The analysis indicates that the character of their teenage work experience is a source of resilience as young adults make the transition from school to work.Earlier versions of this article were presented at the World Congress of Sociology, Brisbane, Australia, July 2002; at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Chicago, August 2002; and at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, Tampa, April 2003. This research is supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD44138) and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH42843). The authors thank Michael Finch for helpful advice regarding the data analysis.

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Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Jeylan T. Mortimer, Life Course Center, University of Minnesota, 267 19th Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55455; E-mail: morti002@atlas.socsci.umn.edu.
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