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).

Cultural change has also affected the kinds of jobs adolescents acquire. In 1940, many teens worked on farms or in manufacturing, in jobs where they were supervised by adults (frequently adults who were family members or were known to their families), and they often received some training that was directly relevant to the jobs they would have after high school. Today, teens are much more likely to work in retail establishments, including restaurants, and to be under the direct supervision of other young people rather than adults. It appears that the work teens do today is often less educational than in 1940 and may have less long-term career value (Aronson, Mortimer, Zierman, & Hacker, 1996).

Although adolescents themselves seem enthusiastic about the value of their part-time work, researchers report that there can be some serious side effects. Note that negative consequences are substantially related to hours of employment—the more hours, the more problematic the effects in most cases. The most troublesome finding is that long hours of employment (especially 20 or more hours per week) are associated with increases in problem behaviors like theft (e.g., giving away store products to friends), school misconduct, and alcohol and drug use, including cigarette smoking (e.g., Mihalic & Elliot, 1997; Mortimer et al., 1999; Steinberg & Cauffman, 1995). The effects of work on schooling and school involvement are mixed. Several large-scale studies have found no effects on students’ grades but negative effects on total educational attainment: Years of schooling tend to be reduced for students who invest long hours in their jobs. Other studies have found negative correlations between working and grades even for relatively few hours of work (Largie, Field, Hernandez-Reif, Sanders, & Diego, 2001). Steinberg et al. (1993) point out that negative associations between schooling and work appear to be bidirectional—for example, teens with less school involvement are more likely to seek jobs, and once they are working substantial hours, teens become even less involved in school. In a review of the literature, Mortimer et al. (1999) conclude that benefits from high school employment, like feelings of self-efficacy and self-esteem, are most likely when work hours are short and the quality of the work experience is good. Quality includes opportunities to learn new skills, to use one’s skills, to discuss work tasks with supervisors, to be helpful to others, and to have relative freedom from stressors like time pressure, work overload, and responsibility for aspects of the work that are outside the adolescent’s control.

The research on adolescent employment helps illustrate the power of historical and social context to influence the well-being of adolescents. Many of the students who seek part-time work today would not have done so in the first half of this century. The urge to earn is apparently spawned largely by teenagers’ wanting the material goods and pleasures so prominently advertised and modeled in today’s print media, movies, and television, as we will discuss in the next section. Ironically, the temporary affluence teens experience as a result of working in low-level, part-time jobs actually may, for some, help diminish their chances of pursuing high-paying, education-dependent careers later in their lives (Steinberg & Cauffman, 1995).