Skip to main content

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


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.

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:
Hide All


Alwin, D. E. (1994). Aging, personality, and social change: The stability of individual differences over the life span. In D. L. Featherman, R. M. Lerner, & M. Perlmutter (Eds.) Life span development and behavior (pp. 135185). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Alwin, D. E., & McCammon, R. J. (2003). Generations, cohorts, and social change. In J. T. Mortimer & M. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 2350). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press.
Aronson, P. J., Mortimer, J. T., Zierman, C., & Hacker, M. (1996). Generational differences in early work experiences and evaluations. In J. T. Mortimer & M. D. Finch (Eds.) Adolescents, work, and family: An intergenerational developmental analysis (pp. 2562). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Bachman, J. G., Bare, D. E., & Frankie, E. I. (1986). Correlates of employment among high school seniors. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research.
Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. (1993). How part-time work intensity relates to drug use, problem behavior, time use, and satisfaction among high school seniors: Are these consequences or merely correlates? Developmental Psychology 29, 220235.
Baker, F., & Green, G. M. (1991). Work, health, and productivity: Overview. In G. M. Green & F. Baker (Eds.), Work, health and productivity (pp. 329). New York: Oxford University Press.
Blum, R. W., & Rinehart, P. M. (1997). Reducing the risk: Connections that make a difference in the lives of youth. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota.
Bridges, L. J. (2003). Coping as an element of developmental well-being. In M. H. Bornstein, L. Davidson, C. L. M. Keyes, & K. A. Moore (Eds.), Well-being. Positive development across the life course (pp. 155166). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Call, K. T. (1996). The implications of helpfulness for possible selves. In J. T. Mortimer & M. D. Finch (Eds.), Adolescents, work, and family: An intergenerational developmental analysis (pp. 6396) Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Call, K. T., & Mortimer, J. T. (2002). Arenas of comfort and adolescent stress: Evidence from a prospective longitudinal study. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Call, K. T., Mortimer, J. T., & Shanahan, M. (1995). Helpfulness and the development of competence in adolescence. Child Development 66, 129138.
Cicchetti, D., & Toth, S. L. (1995). Developmental psychopathology and disorders of affect. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology, Vol. 2. Risk, disorder and adaptation (pp. 369420). New York: Wiley.
Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor. (1998). Protecting youth at work. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Compas, B. E. (1987). Coping with stress during childhood and adolescence. Psychological Bulletin 101, 393403.
Compas, B. E., & Hammen, C. L. (1996). Child and adolescent depression: Covariation and comorbidity in development. In R. J. Haggerty, L. R. Sherrod, N. Garmezy, & M. Rutter (Eds.), Stress, risk, and resilience in children and adolescents. Process, mechanisms, and interventions (pp. 225267). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Schneider, B. (2000). Becoming adult: How teenagers prepare for the world of work. New York: Basic Books.
Ebata, A. T., Peterson, A. C., & Conger, J .J. (1990). The development of psychopathology in adolescence. In J. Rolf, A. S. Masten, D. Cicchetti, K. H. Nuechterlein, & S. Weintraub (Eds.), Risk and protective factors in the development of psychopathology (pp. 308333). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Elder, G. H., Jr. (1974). Children of the great depression. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Elder, G. H., & Caspi, A. (1990). Studying lives in changing society: Sociological and personological explorations. In A. I. Rabin, R. A. Zucker, R. Emmons, & S. Franks (Eds.), Studying persons and lives (pp. 201247). New York: Springer.
Elder, G. H., & Rockwell, R. C. (1979). Economic depression and postwar opportunity in men's lives: A study of life patterns and health. In R. G. Simmons (Ed.), Research in community and mental health (pp. 249303). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Erickson, R., & Wharton, A. (1997). Inauthenticity and depression: Assessing the consequences of interactive service work. Work and Occupations 24, 188213.
Finch, M. D., Shanahan, M. J., Mortimer, J. T., & Ryu, S. (1991). Work experience and control orientation in adolescence. American Sociological Review 56, 597611.
Freedman, D., Thornton, A., Camburn, D., Alwin, D., & Young–DeMarco, L. (1988). The life history calendar: A technique for collecting retrospective data. In C. C. Clogg (Ed.), Sociological methodology (pp. 3768). San Francisco, CA: Jossey–Bass.
Greenberger, E. (1983). A researcher in the policy arena: The case of child labor. American Psychologist 38, 104111.
Greenberger, E. (1984). Children, family, and work. In N. D. Repucci, L. A. Weithorn, E. P. Mulvey, & J. Monahan (Eds.), Children, mental health, and the law (pp. 103122). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Greenberger, E. (1988). Working in teenage America. In J. T. Mortimer & K. M. Borman (Eds.), Work experience and psychological development through the life span (pp. 2150). Boulder, CO: Westview.
Greenberger, E., & Steinberg, L. D. (1986). When teenagers work: The psychological and social costs of adolescent employment. New York: Basic Books.
Greenberger, E., Steinberg, L. D., & Ruggiero, M. (1982). A job is a job is a job or is it? Behavioral observations in the adolescent workplace. Work and Occupations 9, 7996.
Johnson, M. K., & Mortimer, J. T. (2000). Work-family orientations and attainments in the early life course. In T. L. Parcel & D. B. Cornfield (Eds.) Work and family: Research informing policy. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Johansson, G., & Aronsson, G. (1991). Psychosocial factors in the workplace. In G. M. Green & F. Baker (Eds.), Work, health, and productivity (pp. 179197). New York: Oxford University Press.
Kohn, M. L., & Schooler, C. (1983). Work and personality: An inquiry into the impact of social stratification. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Luthar, S. S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future work. Child Development 71, 543562.
Markus, H., Cross, S., & Wurf, E. (1990). The role of the self-system in competence. In R. J. Sternberg, & J. Kolligan, Jr. (Eds.), Competence considered (pp. 205226). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Martin, J. K., & Roman, P. M. (1996). Job satisfaction, job reward characteristics, and employees' problem drinking behaviors. Work and Occupations 23, 425.
Masten, A. S., & Garmezy, N. (1985). Risk, vulnerability, and protective factors in developmental psychopathology. In B. B. Lahey & A. E. Kazdin (Eds.), Advances in clinical child psychology (Vol. 8, pp. 152). New York: Plenum Press.
Masten, A. S., Hubbard, J. J., Gest, S. D., Tellegen, A., Garmezy, N., & Ramirez, M. (1999). Adaptation in the context of adversity: Pathways to resilience and maladaptation from childhood to late adolescence. Development and Psychopathology 11, 143169.
McMorris, B., & Uggen, C. (2000). Alcohol and employment in the transition to adulthood. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41, 276294.
Mihalic, S., & Elliott, D. (1997). Short- and long-term consequences of adolescent work. Youth and Society 28, 464498.
Mortimer, J. T. (2003). Working and growing up in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mortimer, J. T., Finch, M. D, & Ryu, S. (1994). Work intensity and the mental health of high school students: A test of three behavioral models. Paper presented at the 1994 World Congress of Sociology, Bielefeld, Germany.
Mortimer, J. T., Finch, M. D., Ryu, S., Shanahan, M. J., & Call, K. (1996). The effects of work intensity on adolescent mental health, achievement, and behavioral adjustment: New evidence from a prospective study. Child Development 67, 12431261.
Mortimer, J. T., Harley, C., & Staff, J. (2002). The quality of work and youth mental health. Work and Occupations 29, 166197.
Mortimer, J. T., & Johnson, M. K. (1998). New perspectives on adolescent work and the transition to adulthood. In R. Jessor (Ed.), New perspectives on adolescent risk behavior (pp. 425496). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mortimer, J. T., Lorence, J., & Kumka, D. (1986). Work, family, and personality: Transition to adulthood. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Mortimer, J. T., & Shanahan, M. J. (1991). Adolescent work experience and relations with peers. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Cincinnati, OH.
Mortimer, J. T., & Shanahan, M. J. (1994). Adolescent work experience and family relationships. Work and Occupations 21, 369384.
Parker, D., Carl, W., French, L., & Martin, F. (1994). Characteristics of adolescent work injuries reported to the Minnesota department of labor and industry. American Journal of Public Health 84, 606611.
Paternoster, R., Bushway, S., Brame, R., & Apel, R. (2003). The effect of teenage employment on delinquency and problem behaviors. Social Forces 82, 297336.
Pearlin, L. I., Menaghan, E. G., Lieberman, M. A., & Mullan, J. T. (1981). The stress process. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 22, 337356.
Phillips, S., & Sandstrom, K. L. (1990). Parental attitudes towards youth work. Youth and Society 22, 160183.
Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ross, C., & Wright, M. (1998). Women's work, men's work, and the sense of control. Work and Occupations 25, 333355.
Rutter, M. (1985). Resilience in the face of adversity: Protective factors and resistance to psychiatric disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry 147, 598611.
Safron, D., Bachman, J., & Schulenberg, J. (2001). Part-time work and hurried adolescence: The links among work intensity, social activities, health behaviors, and substance use. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 42, 425449.
Schulenberg, J., & Bachman, J. G. (1993). Long hours on the job? Not so bad for some types of jobs: The quality of work and substance use, affect and stress. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research on Child Development, New Orleans, LA.
Shanahan, M. J. (1992). High school work experiences and depressed mood. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Pittsburgh, PA.
Shanahan, M. J., Finch, M. D., Mortimer, J. T., & Ryu, S. (1991). Adolescent work experience and depressive affect. Social Psychology Quarterly 54, 299317.
Shanahan, M. J., & Flaherty, B. P. (2001). Dynamic patterns of time use in adolescence. Child Development 72, 385401.
Shanahan, M. J., & Mortimer, J. T. (1996). Understanding the positive consequences of psychosocial stress. In B. Markovsky, M. Lovaglia, & R. Simon (Eds.), Advances in group processes (Vol. 13, pp. 189209). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.
Simmons, R. G. (2001). Comfort with the self. In T. J. Owens, S. Stryker, & N. Goodman (Eds.), Extending self-esteem theory and research: Sociological and psychological currents. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, R. G., & Blyth, D. A. (1987). Moving into adolescence: The impact of pubertal change and school context. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.
Staff, J., Mortimer, J. T., & Uggen, C. (2003). Work and leisure in adolescence. In J. T. Mortimer & M. Shanahan (Eds.), Handbook of the life course (pp. 429450). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Press.
Staff, J., & Uggen, C. (2003). The fruits of good work: Early work experiences and adolescent deviance. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency 40, 263290.
Steinberg, L. D., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1991). Negative correlates of part-time employment during adolescence: Replication and elaboration. Developmental Psychology 27, 304313.
Steinberg, L. D., Fegley, S., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1993). Negative impact of part-time work on adolescent adjustment: Evidence from a longitudinal study. Developmental Psychology 29, 171180.
Steinberg, L. D., Greenberger, E., Garduque, L., Ruggiero, M., & Vaux, A. (1982). Effects of working on adolescent development. Developmental Psychology 18, 385395.
Ware, J. E., Johnson, S. A., Davis–Avery, A., & Brook, R. H. (1979). Current HIS mental health battery. In Conceptualization and measurement of health for adults in the health insurance study (Vol. 3, r. 1987/3, Hew, Appendix E. Mental Health). Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
Warr, P. (1987). Work, unemployment, and mental health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wright, J. P., Cullen, F. T., & Williams, N. (1997). Working while in school and delinquent involvement: Implications for social policy. Crime and Delinquency 43, 203221.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed