Employment and Crime

IV. The Special Case of Adolescent Employment and Delinquency

Almost all U.S. adolescents gain employment experience before they graduate from high school, with as many as 90% of teenagers entering the labor market at some point during their high school careers (National Research Council, 1998). A nontrivial proportion of employed adolescents also work at high intensity—a label denoting employment of more than 20 hours per week (Greenberger & Steinberg, 1986). Folk wisdom would suggest that intensive exposure to the world of adult work provides a number of positive benefits for adolescents because of the way that it structures a youth’s leisure time, increases exposure to adult authority figures, fosters independence and maturity, teaches responsibility in the use of money, and promotes balancing of multiple responsibilities. Surprisingly, however, empirical research has consistently demonstrated that “the correlates of school-year employment are generally negative” (Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991, p. 309). This is especially true where delinquent behavior is concerned.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a generation of studies of youth employment and antisocial behavior emerged that gave more sustained attention to the developmental consequences of adolescent employment (Agnew, 1986; Bachman & Schulenberg, 1993;Mortimer, 2003; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991;Wright, Cullen, &Williams, 1997, 2002). The seminal work of this new generation of research was a book by Greenberger and Steinberg (1986), titled When Teenagers Work: The Psychological and Social Costs of Adolescent Employment. Their unambiguous conclusion was that “extensive commitment to a job may interfere with the work of growing up” (p. 7). Research by Greenberger and Steinberg and others has consistently found that working during high school was associated with higher rates of school misconduct (e.g., truancy, cheating, suspension), substance use (e.g., cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana), minor delinquency (e.g., theft, vandalism), and serious delinquency (e.g., interpersonal aggression, assault). Moreover, researchers discovered that these negative side effects of employment were generally a function of work intensity, or the number of hours per week devoted to working. Specifically, intensive employment of more than 20 hours per week was associated with the most negative outcomes.

By the late 1990s, the scientific consensus was that work of moderate intensity (1–20 hours per week) has few adverse effects and in some cases is more developmentally beneficial than not working at all. However, beyond this 20-hour threshold employment appeared to be associated with more costs than benefits for the social and emotional development of young people. The finding that intensive employment during adolescence increases the risk of delinquency is puzzling in light of the research on adult employment reviewed earlier, which consistently indicates that adults who are strongly attached to work and who acquire full-time (read: intensive) employment are less likely to be criminally involved. These contradictory results have forced researchers into the awkward position of suggesting that the sign of the work effect changes at some point during the transition to adulthood, that is, that strong attachment to work (as measured by the number of hours per week) is criminogenic for adolescents but prophylactic for adults (e.g., Uggen, 2000, p. 530;Wright et al., 2002, p. 10).

Fortunately, employment–crime theories are sufficiently flexible to accommodate the apparent anomaly of adolescent work. One set of explanations appeals to the job quality thesis of traditional economic and sociological theories. Teenage employment is concentrated in the retail and service industries, in occupations that are universally regarded as low quality. These jobs pay barely more than minimum wage, involve little in the use or acquisition of any notable skills, offer few or no benefits or opportunities for upward mobility, and suffer constant turnover. They are often derided as teenage “McJobs” that do not engender any significant degree of attachment on the part of adolescent workers. Moreover, they tend to involve stressful working conditions and are often a stopping point for high school dropouts. Thus, it does not require theoretical acrobatics to explain why adolescent employment may be criminogenic. Low-quality jobs lead to crime among adolescents and adults alike; it just happens to be the case that the typical job for the typical adolescent is a low-quality one and thus a criminogenic one (see Staff & Uggen, 2003, for evidence on “good jobs” in adolescence).

Another set of explanations focuses attention on adolescence as a life stage and is more firmly rooted in developmental psychology and theories of precocious development. Put simply, intensive employment is one symptom of a latent, stage-specific propensity to expedite the transition to adulthood before adolescents have acquired the maturity to do so. The underlying issue for precocious development theory thus has to do with early timing of work, or developmentally “off-time” entry into the work role and especially an intensive work role. According to this perspective, the family and school are the primary socializing institutions in adolescents’ lives, with the workplace taking on secondary importance until the postsecondary years. With respect to family relationships, intensive employment disrupts healthy parent–child relationships, because these youth spend less time with, are less emotionally close to, engage in more disagreements with, are less closely monitored by, and exercise greater decision-making autonomy vis-à-vis their parents than nonworkers or moderate workers (Bachman & Schulenberg, 1993; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991). In schooling domains, intensive employment is associated with disinvestment in and disengagement from school, because it is correlated with less time spent studying and doing homework, cutting class and absenteeism, lower educational aspirations, a nonacademic track curriculum, negative school attitudes, and lower scholastic performance (Agnew, 1986; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991). Therefore, embeddedness in a developmentally unproductive work role competes with family and school as the dominant influence in the lives of adolescents and leads to a variety of delinquent and deviant adaptations (Wright et al., 2002).

Irrespective of the explanatory mechanism, until recently there was virtual unanimity that youth employment was criminogenic (with notable exceptions, e.g., Good et al., 1986). However, a new round of youth employment research has emerged in the 2000s that strongly challenges the interpretation of the employment–delinquency association as causal (Apel, Paternoster, Bushway, & Brame, 2006; Apel, Bushway, Paternoster, Brame, & Sweeten, 2008; Apel et al., 2007; Brame, Bushway, Paternoster, & Apel, 2004; Paternoster, Bushway, Brame, & Apel, 2003). This research has been attentive to the fact that adolescent workers (especially high-intensity workers) are different from moderate workers and nonworkers, often well before they begin working. For example, youth tend to enter the labor market in part as a result of weak emotional attachment to their parents, academic underperformance and school disengagement, and early delinquent and antisocial behavior (see Apel et al., 2007; Bachman & Schulenberg, 1993; Mortimer, 2003; Steinberg et al., 1993). In other words, youth with a higher propensity for crime are precisely those most likely to work intensively while in school. This implies that the apparent criminogenic effect of youth employment may be a selection artifact instead of the true causal effect of employment on delinquent behavior.

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