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The role of activity in adolescent development: a study of employment.

A considerable number of studies have concerned themselves with the issue of adolescent work values. Within the Australian context, O'Brien & Kabanoff (1979) found a significant difference between employed and unemployed groups, including youth groups, on work values. In contrast, both Tiggeman & Winefield (1980) and Turtle, Cranfield, Rogers, Reuman, & Williams (1978) found no difference.

Although differences in methodology, samples, length of unemployment, and prior history of employment may be used to explain this disparity (Gurney & Taylor, 1981), a consistent model of adolescent behavior has not been applied to these studies. Often, it seems, explanations for adolescent attitudes toward unemployment are couched in terms of work values, rather than adolescent development. Yet adolescence is the time that values concerning work and other social institutions are developed (Erikson, 1963). Thus, studies on adolescent or youth unemployment are really studies of the development of work values, rather than expressions of already developed values.

Some support for this proposition can be found from O'Brien and Kabanoff's study. They noted in their sample that compared to the older population, young people were less job involved as a whole. This indirect evidence suggests that work values are an emergent concern in the young adult, and may be much more easily influenced than similar values in the adult.

Shepherd (1981) discusses five functions of work. It serves to structure and organize time, provides social contacts and rewards, and provides self-esteem. Work can provide feelings of achievement and satisfaction and, finally, work results in earning an income.

Work can be seen to have a central role in establishing a structure for the adolescent emerging into an adult world. It represents a readily available and highly valued way of ordering behavior. This is presumed to occur through the production of planned and purposeful activity. Thus, it seems logical to propose, that events which disturb this ordering should affect the development of values in the adolescent. It is in this context that a study by Isralowitz and Singer (1986) becomes important. They investigated the impact of unemployment on the formation of work values in adolescents by examining the effect of the employment status of the adolescents' parents. They concluded that the "valuing of new experiences," and the ability to engage in such experiences, was an important component in the understanding of the effects of unemployment on youth.

In this regard activity is an important concept. Furnham (1981) showed that activity and activity preferences were related to personality development. Inasmuch as work is a major source of activity in day-to-day life, activity, theoretically, should moderate the effects of unemployment. The availability of work (or suitable alternatives) becomes an important aspect in the development of the adolescent. The following discussion is based on evidence collected in 1982. The effects of employment and unemployment on an adolescent sample, and the hypothesis that activity levels would act to moderate the effects of unemployment were explored. In addition, other personality variables such as trait and state indicators of anxiety and depression, self-esteem, locus of control, and work values were investigated.


It was hypothesized that (1) Activity levels would discriminate between the employed and the unemployed. It was predicted that the unemployed would record lower levels of activity. (2) That the activity variable would be associated with personality measures of self-esteem and mood measures. It was predicted that higher levels of activity would result in higher levels of self-esteem and less mood disturbance. It was additionally predicted that higher activity levels would be associated with more internal locus of control. (3) It was predicted that an interaction effect between employment status and activity would be found such that the unemployed would have lower levels of activity and higher indices of disturbance on the test data. (4) It was predicted that the unemployed would show generally more mood disturbances than would the employed, but on measures of more enduring personality disturbance, it was predicted that the employed and unemployed groups would not differ.


A sample of 174 unemployed youths between 16 and 21 years of age, of mixed cultural backgrounds were approached outside the Marrickville Commonwealth Employment Office. These youths were chosen at random as they entered the building. They were interviewed regarding their willingness to be involved in the study, and those that agreed (112) were then given an assessment package to complete at home. The package contained the Neuroticism Scale Questionnaire (NSQ) (Cattell & Scheier, 1961); the Profile of Mood States (POMS) (McNair, Lorr, & Droppleman, 1971), a Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965), a Work Ethic Scale (Blood, 1969), and the Locus of Control Scale (Rotter, 1966). The NSQ allows an examination of more enduring (trait) predispositional elements of personality while the POMS purports to measure more transitional, situational (state) elements of mood.

A Life History Questionnaire which contained an activity rating scale was developed and included in the package. This scale was initially derived from information supplied in other studies (Turtle et al., 1978; Brewer, 1975). A list of activities, either habitually or occasionally indulged in by adolescents, was generated. This list was then circulated to colleagues who commented on the appropriateness of the activities. A final list of twenty activities, scored on a Likert scale, was arrived at. This questionnaire also collected data on age; sex; ethnic background; attitudes toward school and preparedness to return to school; and educational history. It also tapped employment and unemployment histories, vocational attitudes and attributions regarding the locus of blame for unemployment, and feelings about themselves (i.e., how happy, bored, satisfied they were with their present life style). Seventy subjects successfully completed all the material.

In addition, 93 employed youths were obtained from local industry to act as a comparison group. A similar package of questionnaires and scales were given to this group, also to complete at home. Recruitment of subjects ceased after 70 completed packages were received. Results were analysed using a MANOVA program.


Preliminary analysis of the interview data demonstrated that both groups were similar in age distribution, sex ratio, and ethnic background. The demographic data were analyzed using chi-squares. Differences between the groups over a large number of demographic indices were few. Only general satisfaction (employed |is greater than~ unemployed), a greater interest in (but not achievement or extent of) schooling (employment |is greater than~ unemployment) and the employed reporting a greater sense of involvement with society differentiated the groups. Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the sample.


The MANOVA made use of the following demographic variables: Employment Status, Activity, Sex, and Age. Table 2 shows the results for this analysis. Only employment status and activity achieved significance. Although the MANOVA interaction for Employment/Activity was not significant, analysis of the activity scale with the personality variables did show some important relationships. The mean activity score for the unemployed groups was lower than for the employed group, but failed to achieve significance. Its relationship with self-esteem, however, was confirmed, and it is possible that activity plays some mediating role through some personality variables such as self-esteem.
Table 2

F values for activity and employment status on personality
tests and work values (N = 137).

 Employment Status Activity

Overall Manova 3.044 (***) 2.161 (**)

Sensitivity 14.57 (***) 1.55
Depression 0.10 0.43
Submission 0.22 1.64
Anxiety 0.44 5.23 (**)
Neuroticism 3.86 (*) 0.06


Anxiety 2.76 2.58
Sadness 2.52 9.18 (**)
Anger 0.23 7.46 (**)
Vigour 0.53 17.82 (***)
Fatigue 1.37 5.06 (**)
Confusion 6.44 (**) 3.97 (*)

Work Ethic 7.42 (**) 1.99
Self Esteem 10.77 (***) 3.97 (*)
Internal Control 0.04 2.63

* p |is less than or equal to~ 0.05;

** p |is less than or equal to~ 0.01;

*** p |is less than or equal to~ 0.001.

Manova results for Sex (F = 0.492;ns) and Age (F = 1.38;ns)

Activity level proved a significant variable, strongly associated with mood and self-esteem measures. The extremely high association between activity level and the vigor sub-scale on the POMs suggests that there is some validity to the activity measure.

In terms of the hypotheses outlined, this study suggests that the unemployed do not differ greatly from the employed on measures of trait personality. The unemployed are not more "neurotic" (as measured by the NSQ) than are the employed, but did show greater current emotional disturbances. This is an important finding in that it suggests that differences between employed and unemployed groups cannot be blamed on psychological variables which predate the opportunity for employment. This confirms the general finding in the literature that self-esteem is associated with employment rather than unemployment, and supports those studies that have shown a relationship between employment/unemployment and development of the work ethic value. In a separate analysis, length of unemployment proved insignificant on all variables. This result was unexpected, although an inspection of the means showed that the longer-term unemployed had lower mean scores for activity, work ethic, and self-esteem and higher general mood disturbance scores. However, none of these reached statistical significance.

No significant effect was found between locus of control and either employment status or activity levels. This finding was not expected although the Tiggeman and Winefield (1980) study also reported a failure of the locus of control measure to differentiate between their employed and unemployed populations.


In the Israelowitz and Singer (1986) study, the primary difference between youth affected by an unemployment setting as opposed to youth whose fathers were employed was the "valuing of new experiences." It would seem that the reported study suggests that unemployment may also act to reduce the likelihood of participation in such "new experiences," adding further to stress. Marrickville, the site of this study, is a highly disadvantaged local government area (Vinson & Homel, 1976), and without an income there are limited opportunities to engage in new activities or find realistic alternatives to work. Dobson & Joffe (1987) commented on the effect of activity on mood, especially depression, and cites the work of Lewinsohn in this context. Broadly, the assumption is that activity provides one with access to response--contingent positive reinforcement. Although there may be some doubt as to whether such reinforcement (through exposure to pleasureable events) is effective, there is better evidence to suggest that one's attitude to such events does produce changes in moods (Hammen & Glass, 1975, quoted in Dobson & Joffe, 1987). Dobson and Joffe reported results which corroborated the role of expectation in amplifying the saliency of increased activity and its effect on mood.

In the present study, the pattern of activity was more evenly spread than expected, and did not differentiate between the long-term and shorter-term unemployed, but it did load on the self-esteem and mood indicators, suggesting a demonstrable connection between activity and mood, as well as with personality variables such as self-esteem. This result is essentially in agreement with the formulation of activity proposed by Furnham (1981).

As early as the 1930s Jahoda (1979) commented on the reduction in activity that seemed to accompany unemployment. Adolescence is a time of activity. As much through hormonal changes as anything else, the adolescent seems endowed with considerable energy and restlessness. Another feature of adolescence is that it is the period in which cause and effect connections are made, that a mature or adult orientation toward causality is formed (Kagan, 1982; Sabatelli & Mazor, 1985). It is proposed that it is in the interaction of the two processes of activity and causal reasoning that developmental considerations regarding the development of the work ethic need to be understood. It is further proposed that this interaction can be understood by invoking the notion of time, which is envisaged here as two processes. The first is that of temporal sequencing. Thus, events and causes are placed in some linear relationship, causes precede effects and form the basis of acquired knowledge for further predictions and behavior to occur (see Ross, 1981 for an account of the Intuitive Scientist model of cognition). The second sense in which time is important is that of perspective. Adolescents view their future time perspective as shorter or longer depending on their experiences. Research has shown that the more disruptive a person's life has been, the more "deviant" the person may be, the shorter the time perspective (Manganiello, 1978). Rutter (1986) has suggested that Future Time Perspective has an important etiological significance for the development of depression in adolescence. There is also some suggestion that time perspective and time estimation are correlated or linked concepts (Siegman, 1961).

Activity obviously plays a role in the development of time perspective through the creation of events and consequences. Studies with shift workers (Rosenthal & Howe, 1984) have shown that distortions in normal activities (reductions) cause distortions in one's sense of time and reductions in the usefulness of time. Work serves to structure and organize time (Shepherd, 1981; Jahoda, 1979), and within contemporary Australian society it is still the main process by which social structuring occurs. Casson (1979) noted that, for young employees, it was the social, not the financial, aspects of work that were most appealing.

It could be argued that circumstances which reduce the ability of the adolescent to engage in activities (particularly work) would reduce their capacity to not only discover "reinforcement" and hence develop self-esteem (as has been consistently noted in nearly all studies on youth unemployment) and self-confidence, but would also interfere with the development of time perspective and hence affect value development. This argument, of course, depends on the notion that values develop on the basis of utility. People develop values that provide some explanatory power in their own life.

In short, the hypothesis is that where conditions exist that act to reduce activity and shorten the development of time perspective, the development of the work ethic, based as it is on the notion of work for one's future, will be affected. Under these conditions, it would not be surprising if no work ethic emerged at all. Studies which have dealt with youth who have no experience of work or unemployment (i.e., school dropouts) should therefore expect to find no difference in values on the work ethic.

On the other hand, studies which compare populations that have had the chance to develop the work ethic through participation in either employment or unemployment, should report a difference between their populations, as was found in this study. It may also be noted that if one looks at the samples of the O'Brien & Kabanoff study, and of the Tiggeman & Winefield study, the difference in their results can be explained by the use of a general youth population versus that of a school dropout population.

Finally, if the early experience of work is part of the developmental sequence of adolescence, the provision of appropriate programs becomes a necessity. The failure to consider the development of work perspectives as a developmental component has allowed service providers to compare adolescents with adults, and make moralistic judgments about their "unwillingness" to work. Yet it would seem that if youth are to be encouraged to adopt a socially acceptable attitude toward work, the opportunity to form this attitude must be provided. This means providing work-training programs of appropriate length and remuneration to encourage this development.


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Author:Lennings, C.J.
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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