Adolescents Taking Their Place in the World
ADOLESCENTS IN THE WORKFORCE
In general, the U.S. public believes that work is beneficial—and at worst, benign—for children and adolescents. Today, work is a familiar part of the lives of many children and most adolescents in the United States. Yet working can be dangerous.
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that about 44 percent of 16-and 17-year-olds work at some time during the year, either while in school, during the summer, or both. The government estimates do not include children younger than 16 who may work, although the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (called Add Health) found that about 40 percent of 7th and 8th graders were employed during the school year. Children of any age may work in family-owned businesses and on family farms. But even the official numbers for 16- and 17-year-olds are likely to be underestimates because they are based on reports by parents or other adults in the household. Research has found that parents systematically understate the involvement in the workforce of their children. Department of Labor estimates are also limited by rather specific definitions of work. When high school students are interviewed directly through research surveys, about 80 percent report that they hold jobs during the school year at some point during high school.
A notable characteristic of working adolescents is that they move in and out of the labor market, changing jobs and work schedules frequently,
in response to changes in employers' needs, labor market conditions, and circumstances in their own lives. Children and teens, like adults, work mainly for the money. Children's income, however, no longer goes primarily toward family support, as it once did: the majority of working adolescents spend most of their incomes on discretionary items or on their individual needs.
The biggest employer of adolescents is the retail sector—restaurants, fast-food outlets, grocery stores, and other retail stores—which employs more than 50 percent of all working 15- to 17-year-olds. The next biggest employer is the service sector (e.g., health care settings such as nursing homes), which accounts for more than 25 percent of working adolescents, followed by 8 percent employed in agriculture. Several of the industries in these sectors of the economy have high rates of injury for all workers.
Some parts of the youth population face unique problems related to work. Children and adolescents who are poor or minority or have disabilities are far less likely than white, middle-class young people to be employed and therefore to reap the potential benefits of work experience. Furthermore, the jobs that poor and minority young people have tend to be in more dangerous industries. When they do work, the hours they work and the wages they receive are comparable to those of other youngsters.
Working has been shown to be associated with both positive and negative consequences for adolescents. Working may increase responsibility, self-esteem, and independence and may help children and adolescents learn valuable work skills. Employment that is limited in intensity (usually defined as 20 hours or less per week) during high school years has been found to promote postsecondary educational attainment. Many studies show positive links between working during high school and subsequent vocational outcomes, including less unemployment, a longer duration of employment after completing schooling, and higher earnings.
However, high-intensity work (usually defined as more than 20 hours per week) is associated with unhealthy and problem behaviors, including substance abuse and minor deviance, insufficient sleep and exercise, and limited time spent with families. Moreover, a high level of work during adolescence has been found to be associated with decreased eventual educational attainment. It should be noted that researchers have often chosen the dividing point of 20 hours of work per week as a convenient way to subdivide hours of work into low-intensity and high-intensity employment; that division is not based on specific research about 20 hours per se.
Children and adolescents may be exposed to many work-related hazards that can result in injury, illness, or death. About 100,000 young people seek treatment in hospital emergency departments for work-related injuries each year. The average of 70 documented deaths that occur among children and adolescents each year as a result of injuries suffered at work is believed to be an underestimate.
The rate of injury per hour worked appears almost twice as high for children and adolescents as for adults—about 4.9 injured per 100 full-time-equivalent workers among adolescents, compared with 2.8 per 100 full-time-equivalent workers for all workers. The industries with the highest injury rates for young workers are retail stores and restaurants, manufacturing, construction, and public-sector jobs. There is virtually no information on the extent to which young people are exposed to toxic or carcinogenic substances in the workplace, exposures that may cause illnesses many years later.
Work-related deaths of workers 17 years and younger are highest in agriculture, followed by retail trade and construction. The most common causes of work-related deaths among 16- and 17-year-olds involve motor vehicles, electrocutions, and homicides.
Many of the industries that employ large numbers of children and adolescents have higher than average injury rates for workers of all ages, but young workers do not receive adequate health and safety training at work—training that has been linked with reduced injuries and acute illnesses when provided to adult workers who are young or inexperienced. Furthermore, children and adolescents often work with inadequate supervision and at tasks for which they may be developmentally unprepared.
Inexperience, as well as physical, cognitive, and emotional developmental characteristics, may also play a part in the risk of injury faced by young workers. Research on adults reveals that inexperience on the job contributes to occupational injuries. It should not be surprising, then, if the inexperience of children and adolescents turns out to be an important factor in their work-related injury rates. Injury may also result from a physical mismatch between the size of the child or adolescent and the task: for example, machinery that was designed for adult males may be too large or heavy for children or adolescents to handle safely.
Working provides benefits to children and adolescents, but the benefits do not come without potential risks to the workers' physical, emotional, educational, and social development. Because so many children and adolescents participate in the U.S. workforce and undoubtedly will con-
tinue to do so, the issue is not whether they should work, but what circumstances cause working to be detrimental, what can be done to avoid those circumstances, and how working can be made more beneficial.
About half of high school graduates in the United States do not go on to college, and of those who do, less than a quarter obtain four-year-degrees. Yet the array of programs and services available to college-bound students completely swamps those available to noncollege-bound students. Most students planning to attend college receive comprehensive academic offerings that are linked to college requirements; counseling is available to help them make decisions and to see the connection between academic achievement and college acceptance; once accepted into college, financial assistance is often available; and most institutions offer a variety of orientation services to help adolescents adjust to their new life.
For the larger number of adolescents who do not attend or finish college, assistance is far more limited. Many vocational education and employment training programs do not offer a sequenced series of courses through high school to develop the skills required in specific occupational sectors. The failure of the school-to-work transition system to adequately respond to the needs of the majority of high school graduates contributes materially to the economic insecurity that characterizes many young families.
Traditionally, helping adolescents make the transition into the labor market has not been an explicit part of the mission of America's public schools. As a result, vocational education remains isolated from both academic institutions and the labor market; it is seen as having little value among school administrators and teachers, many of whom argue that vocational education has become a dumping ground for students not in college. The extent of the stigma is disputed, but there is little disagreement that vocational education and its administrators, teachers, and students have become isolated from the mainstream of secondary education, and that recent reforms have done little to reduce this isolation.
For these reasons, vocational education has had at best mixed success. There is abundant evidence that the vocational education system in the United States has only marginally helped students make the transition from schooling to work. In too many vocational programs, there is only a tenuous connection between training and placement, there is no increase in earnings after program completion to offset the cost of training, and few
participants find employment appropriate to their training. Vocational students seldom accrue long-term benefits, compared with other students, in terms of income, employment, or job status.
For students in vocational and traditional high school settings, here is no institutional bridge or system to help them make the transition from school-to-work—unlike in most other industrialized countries. Left to themselves, many high school graduates flounder in the labor market, either jobless or obtaining jobs with low wages and little opportunity for advancement. These difficulties are illustrated by the labor market ''inactivity rates" of young people—the percentage of the population that is not employed, serving in the military, or enrolled in school (employment-to-population ratios). For young adults who have failed to graduate from high school, the opportunities for full-time work have been extremely limited.
In the absence of federal policy guidance, there have been a number of state and local efforts to create school-to-work transition systems, with an integrated array of services for young people. School and work linkages have been established through cooperative education, apprenticeship, and other work-based learning programs. There are also a small number of multisite research and demonstration programs—typically funded by foundations—that seek to involve both public and private agencies to provide options for low-achieving students and dropouts to move into the labor market. However, only an estimated 3 to 8 percent of all high school students are enrolled in such programs.
ADOLESCENTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY: CHANGING SOCIODEMOGRAPHIC PATTERNS
As previously discussed, the size, age, and racial and ethnic composition of the adolescent population is changing dramatically as the 21st century approaches. Added to the growth in the number of adolescents is a tremendous shift currently taking place in the racial and ethnic composition of the nation. The United States is in the midst of a great wave of immigration, a movement of people that has profound implications for a society that by tradition pays homage to its immigrant roots at the same time that it confronts complex and deeply ingrained ethnic and racial divisions. Demographers expect that, by the year 2000, 31 percent of the adolescent population will be members of a racial or ethnic minority group, compared with 26 percent in the total population.
The immigrants of today are coming primarily from nonindustrialized parts of Asia and Latin America and are driving a demographic shift so rapid that, within the lifetimes of today's teenagers, no single ethnic group—including whites of European descent—will constitute a majority of the nation's population.
The demographic shifts are smudging the old lines demarcating two historical, often distinct societies, one black and one white. Reshaped by three decades of rapidly rising immigration, the national portrait is now far more complex. Whites currently account for 74 percent of the children, blacks 12 percent, Hispanics 10 percent, and Asians 3 percent. Yet according to data and predictions generated by the Census Bureau, the population of Hispanics is likely to surpass that of blacks early in the next century. And by the year 2050, it is estimated that Hispanics will account for 25 percent of the population; blacks, 14 percent; Asians, 8 percent; and whites, 53 percent.
Overall, minority groups are growing at a faster rate than the white segments of the population. And these population patterns are particularly apparent when looking at the adolescent population. By the year 2000, the total number of black adolescents is expected to increase 16 percent from 1985; the greatest increase will occur in the younger age group (i.e., 10- to 14-year-olds). Although the absolute number of black adolescents has increased since the mid-1980s, their rates of growth have been smaller than those of Hispanic and Asian adolescents. Thus, although blacks continue to be the largest group among the adolescent minority population, their overall proportion will have decreased from 55 percent in 1985 to 52 percent in 2000.
Projections also indicate that the white adolescent population will have increased by 1 percent between 1985 and 2000. The most dramatic change will be among Hispanic adolescents, with a 42 percent increase in their overall numbers. Hispanic adolescents are expected to represent an estimated 12 percent of the adolescent population. The growth among Hispanics reflects both an increasing number of new immigrants and improvements in the manner in which Hispanics are counted in the population. In addition, as a result of Asian migration, demographers also estimate that, in the year 2000, 11 percent of all school-age children will be of Asian or Pacific Island descent.
From the standpoint of adolescent development, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about similarities and differences between adolescents in immigrant and U.S.-born families regarding psychological well
being, academic success, and other measures of successful adaptation to U.S. society, for reasons that include the small immigrant samples used in available studies. However, the majority of adolescents in immigrant families appear to sustain positive feelings about themselves and their well-being, while also perceiving that they have relatively less control over their lives and are less popular with their peers at school. Many also report having strong achievement motivation, although this may deteriorate from one generation to the next.
Children in immigrant families also appear to have somewhat higher middle school grade point averages and math test scores than do children in U.S.-born families, although reading test scores for the first generation are lower than for later generations. Differences across children and adolescents from various countries of origin appear quite large, however. For example, Chinese adolescents in immigrant families have higher grade point averages and higher math test scores than Chinese-origin or white children in U.S.-born families. In contrast, Mexican-origin children in immigrant and U.S.-born families have grade point averages and math test scores that are similar to each other but much lower than for white children in U.S.-born families: Corresponding to the declines in achievement motivation across generations, there is evidence among Chinese and Filipino children that the especially strong achievement records of the second generation are not sustained in later generations.
Demographic change, worldwide and within the United States, will powerfully affect many aspects of the quality of life for adolescents in the 21st century—the environment, food, the economy, schools, jobs, and health. America's health care system in the 21st century must successfully achieve equity between the young and the aged and among social and ethnic groups.
Given these dramatic demographic shifts and the substantial increase in the adolescent population in the coming years, researchers have the opportunity to increase their knowledge base with regard to promoting adolescent development, health, safety, security and well-being; designing and, in some cases, redesigning institutions and systems of care to more appropriately address the needs of adolescents; promoting peaceful, respectful relations among adolescents of different ethnic groups; promoting positive relationships between adolescents and their parents; encouraging and supporting them as a resource within communities; and helping them define their civic role in a democratic society.
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From Generation to Generation: The Health and Well-Being of Children in Immigrant Families (1998)
Losing Generations: Adolescents in High-Risk Settings (1993)
The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (1997)
New Findings on Welfare and Children's Development: Summary of a Research Briefing (1994)
Protecting Youth at Work: Health, Safety, and Development of Working Children and Adolescents in the United States (1999)
Systems of Accountability: Implementing Children's Health Insurance Programs (1998)
Transitions in Work and Learning: Implications for Assessment (1997)
2020 Vision: Health in the 21st Century (1996)