By Tim Brady
Jeremy Staff’s research ex amines tee n work, school, and finding balance
As a teenager in Milton, Wisconsin, Jeremy Staff (B.A. ’97, Ph.D. ’04, sociology) worked in the typical adolescent jobs, waiting tables and doling out popcorn at a movie theater. But any connection between those teen jobs and his subsequent work life seemed mighty shaky until Staff found himself as a graduate student studying under Jeylan Mortimer in the Department of Sociology.
Working with Mortimer, Staff began a deep examination of the subject of adolescent work. Not only did he begin to see the value of his own teenage job history, but his recent project Early Work Experiences and the Transition to Adulthood has won him a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development. The goal of the ongoing project, Staff says, is to show “whether paid work during adolescence is a cause, consequence, or correlate of changes in health and well-being, risk behavior, and achievement during the transition to adulthood."
The award comes as no surprise to Mortimer, who says, “What can I say about Jeremy? He was one of those students who was quick to catch on to everything. He was just a star in the department."
Now an assistant professor in the department of sociology at Penn State University, Staff is a coauthor with Mortimer of an article that appeared in the March 2007 issue of Social Forces on the subject of adolescent work experiences and educational achievement. The essence of their findings is that the amount of work adolescents do, in conjunction with their schooling, is a crucial factor in their ability to reach educational goals.
“We found that kids with the highest levels of [educational] attainment worked a moderate number of hours," says Staff. “They tended to balance their outside work with school work and extracurricular activities, and were basically well-rounded." In contrast, teens who took jobs that required more than 20 hours of work a week tended to view that employment as a kind of vocational training. These workers were less likely to achieve four-year college degrees.
That isn’t to say that adolescent work experience isn’t important, says Staff. “What the study suggests is that a balance between work and school affords the best background for educational advances," he explains.
Harking back to his undergraduate focus on law, criminology, and deviance, Staff also is coauthor with Christopher Uggen of “The Fruits of Good Work: Early Work Experiences and Adolescent Deviance" (2003, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency). “We were basically looking at how the type of work adolescents do relates to problem behaviors," says Staff. Somewhat surprisingly, the two discovered, the more autonomy apparent in a teenage position, and the more peer status it provided a teenager, the more likely the teen would be to act out, to exhibit problem behaviors. “The more adult-like the work role," says Staff, “the more we found a sort of precocious maturity that often led to behavior issues." For instance, teenagers who taught guitar playing, worked as sales associates, or managed a crew at a fast food restaurant were more prone to act out than young people who had positions of less autonomy.
As for the rewards of good work, Staff has learned more than he ever dreamed of. In 2004 he earned the Sociology of Education’s David Lee Stevenson Award for a graduate student paper he wrote with Jennifer Lee. That same year, he took his first post as an assistant professor of crime, law, and justice and sociology at Penn State.
With the aid of a recent grant from the Johann Jacobs Foundation, Staff is now researching how aspirations relate to later success in school and work. In an era when adolescents seem to have ever higher dreams and goals, this research seems especially appropriate. “Especially when you consider the fact that a lot of them won’t graduate, won’t hold professional jobs, won’t achieve half of what they set out to achieve," says Staff. “Under the circumstances, what role do aspirations play in the process? Why are the high ambitions of youth today often not realized?"
Penn State may have claimed him, but Staff has retained close ties to the University of Minnesota, continuing his scholarly collaborations with Mortimer, Uggen, and others. So did serving up popcorn play any role in his success? “I wouldn’t have said so at the time," says Staff, “but I think it helped."