Leisure and Work in Adolescence

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Outside school, leisure activities occupy much of an adolescent’s time. Leisure activities can promote skill mastery, such as sports participation, hobbies, and artistic pursuits, or they may be more purely recreational, such as playing video games, watching TV, daydreaming, or hanging out with friends (Fine, Mortimer, & Roberts, 1990). Young people who are involved in extracurricular activities sponsored by their schools and other community organizations—athletics, social service organizations, school newspaper staff, student government, band, and so on—are more likely to be academic achievers and to have other desirable qualities than students who are not involved in sponsored activities (Barber et al., 2001; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1996; Eccles & Barber, 1999; Steinberg, 1996). Although there are general benefits to extracurricular participation, it is becoming clear that the kind of benefit varies somewhat by activity and that not all the outcomes are positive. One longitudinal study followed over 1,000 Michigan young people for 14 years, beginning when they were in the 6th grade and keeping track of, among other things, their extracurricular involvements (Barber et al., 2001; Eccles & Barber, 1999). High school participation in either prosocial activities or sports was associated with long-term educational achievements (e.g., going to college). But although kids who participated in prosocial activities were unlikely to use alcohol or other drugs in high school, those who participated in sports were more likely than most other teens to use alcohol in high school. Both personal qualities and peer influences appeared to play a role in shaping these outcomes.

Today’s adolescents spend a lot of time doing work for pay. Are there benefits to these early jobs for teens? It seems reasonable to propose some developmental advantages. Having adult responsibilities might help adolescents feel independent and grown up, enhancing self-esteem. Searching for work and being employed might provide training that is hard to come by in any other way, such as learning how to find a job, learning one’s own job preferences, and clarifying one’s work values (Mortimer, Harley, & Aronson, 1999). Parents often assume that working will help adolescents to learn to manage their money and their time. Mortimer et al. (1999) report that teens who work generally endorse many of these presumed benefits, seeing their jobs as helping them to be more responsible, to manage their time and their money, to establish a work ethic, and to learn social skills. Adolescents also list some negative outcomes, primarily feeling fatigued and having less time for homework and leisure activities, but on balance they see their work in a positive light.

Do adolescents who work need to work—to save for college or even to help ease financial burdens at home? During the Great Depression, economic hardship did send adolescents into the workplace, and working was apparently linked to more responsible use of money and a more “adult” orientation (Elder, 1974). But the culture has changed dramatically since then. Whereas in 1940 only about 3% of 16-year-olds still in school were employed, by 1980 the government estimated that more than 40% were working. Of course, relatively more youngsters complete high school today than in 1940, so that today’s students may be more representative of the general population, but there is evidence of a substantial shift in students’ priorities as well. Large surveys that depend on students’ self-reports rather than government data indicate that in fact about 65% of today’s teens are gainfully employed (Fine et al., 1990). Middle-class teens are more likely to be employed than those from lower socioeconomic groups, and their money is unlikely to be saved or contributed to family expenses. Rather, working teens more frequently spend their money on materialistic pursuits: wardrobes, entertainment, drugs, and alcohol (e.g., Steinberg & Cauffman, 1995; Steinberg et al., 1993).

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