‘Social Class Background and the School-to-Work Transition’

By Jeremy Staff and Jeylan T. Mortimer

Read the full article here.

This chapter sits within a growing canon of both US and UK scholarship analysing the impact of term-time paid employment on both short and long term educational attainment, as well as long term economic outcomes. In this essay, Mortimer and Staff analyse the duration (length of employment) and intensity (hours worked) of paid work at various points during the school careers of American teenagers, and in turn its effects on young people depending on their pre-existing socio-economic background.

Longitudinal data was collected from the Youth Development Study, a survey of teenagers and their parents residing in St. Paul, Minnesota. Beginning in 1987, the survey drew a random sample of 1010 ninth grade students aged between 14 and 15 registered in the St. Paul public school district. Questionnaires, carried out annually in the classroom, included specific questions around early work experiences, school-related behaviours, and psychological adjustment. The respondents were then surveyed in two year intervals from the ages of 19 to 31, with 76% retention rate amongst respondents. Follow-up surveys asked questions about respondent’s hourly earnings. The students’ parents were also surveyed in the first year of the study to obtain accurate information about socioeconomic status and other family background characteristics. The authors’ capture work duration and intensity by analysing the work patterns of the students from the ages of 15 through to 18. Extensive, long term employment (22 months out of 24) was distinguished from shorter duration in work (11 months or less out of 24). High intensity workers were defined as those who worked twenty hours or more in one week, and were distinguished from low intensity workers who worked twenty or fewer hours a week when employed.

The authors find a noticeable relationship between the intensity of early work experiences and educational achievement levels and wage premiums of young people in adulthood. Those who undertook a steady work pattern whilst in high school (defined by the authors as workers who have jobs for a long duration, but with few hours) in both high and low socio-economic groups are most likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree. They also had the highest hourly wage rates in adulthood. However, such relationships are more pronounced for young people from a lower socio-economic background. Among the less advantaged youth in the sample, the average wage at age 31 of steady workers was approximately 9 to 13 percent higher than among youth who followed a sporadic (low duration, high intensity) or occasional (low on duration and intensity) work patterns. Moreover, high intensity work patterns also had a detrimental effect both groups. ‘Better-off’ students, whose parents are relatively well educated, using this type of work pattern were less than half as likely to achieve a bachelor’s degree compared to their similarly advantaged counterparts who followed steady or non-working tracks.

The authors speculate as to why a steady work pattern has a greater effect on young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. They argue that this may be due to steady workers having more time to focus on education whilst receiving the social and cultural capital benefits of working with young people from higher socio-economic groups, with higher socio-economic aspirations. More recent work by Purtell and McLoyd (2013) follows on from this article and further questions why steady work patterns are causing positive socio-economic outcomes. They argue that engaging in low intensity but consistent employment during adolescence may encourage a positive outlook about the future and increase confidence in one’s ability to plan for the future and problem solve when difficulties arise.



See also:

Purtell, K. and McLoyd, V. (2013) ‘A Longitudinal Investigation of Employment Among Low-Income Youth: Patterns, Predictors and Correlates Youth & Society 45.

The article can be found here.


For a UK perspective on this subject, see:

Percy, C. (2010). The impact of formal work experience and term-time paid employment using longitudinal data from England (2003-2007). London: Education and Employers Taskforce.

You can find the paper and a summary of it here.