Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work


How do young people envision their occupational futures? What do teenagers feel about their schooling and after-school work, and how do these experiences affect their passage to adult work? These are the questions that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and sociologist Barbara Schneider posed in their five-year study of adolescents. The results provide an unprecedented window on society's future through which we can glimpse how today's youth are preparing themselves for the lives they will lead in the decades ...

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Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare For The World Of Work

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How do young people envision their occupational futures? What do teenagers feel about their schooling and after-school work, and how do these experiences affect their passage to adult work? These are the questions that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and sociologist Barbara Schneider posed in their five-year study of adolescents. The results provide an unprecedented window on society's future through which we can glimpse how today's youth are preparing themselves for the lives they will lead in the decades to come.

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Editorial Reviews

Does every teenager want to become the next Britney Spears or Tiger Woods? This book tackles the subject of career formation among teenagers. According to the authors, the purpose of this work is to describe "how American teenagers develop attitudes and acquire skills to achieve their career goals and expectations." They delve into "how adolescents today are preparing themselves for the lives they will lead in the years to come." This title discusses work in terms of images and expectations, occupational values, images of work and play, teens' experience in paid employment, families and their role in forming occupational future, and effects of the quality of their classroom experience. Surveys were administered to students at selected sites, targeting females, minorities, and low-income families. Due to the limited nature of the study, the focus was on public middle and high school students. The populations of the schools chosen ran the gamut from financially well off to economically depressed. This work includes three appendices: site descriptions, instruments, and a variable list. It will be most useful to guidance and vocational counselors, school-to-work program workers, and anyone else with an interest in the field of study. A solid purchase for public libraries and high school collections. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 2000, Perseus, Basic Books, 289p. notes. bibliog. index., $18.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Tricia Finch; Youth Svcs. Mgr., North Port P.L., North Port, FL , September 2001 (Vol. 35 No. 5)
Draws on a five-year study of adolescents and high schools, ranging from a magnet school for science to inner-city schools, to find out how young people envision their occupational futures, how their school experiences affect their passage to adult work, and what roles families, schools, and communities play in helping teenagers develop habits and values that will be useful in their careers. Csikszentmihalyi teaches psychology and education at Claremont Graduate University. Schneider is co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children and Work, and professor of sociology at The University of Chicago. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465015412
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 545,573
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is professor of psychology and education at the University of Chicago. He is the author of a number of books, including the bestselling Flow, The Evolving Self, Creativity, and Being Adolescent. Barbara Schneider is co-director of the Alfred P. Sloan Center on Parents, Children, and Work, and is professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. She has co-authored a number of books including The Ambitious Generation and Transforming Schools.

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Chapter One


This book describes how American teenagers develop attitudes and acquire skills to achieve their career goals and expectations. From 1992 to 1997, our group of researchers followed the progress of more than a thousand students from thirteen school districts across the United States. These students came from both wealthy communities in which a young person could expect to move without effort into professional occupations and inner-city neighborhoods rife with unemployment and crime. Study sites included a magnet high school famous for training some of the best scientific talent in the country as well as high schools having the goal of preparing teens for community college.

    Students in these schools recorded at random moments their thoughts and feelings about what they did; filled out questionnaires concerning their families and school, their peer relationships, and career aspirations; and told us about their lives in extensive interviews. Their friends, parents, and teachers were also interviewed. A team of graduate students spent time becoming familiar with the schools and communities and spoke to teachers and school counselors about their schools' educational aims and their students' future prospects. The detailed results of these inquiries provide a window on the future of our society through which we can glimpse how adolescents today are preparing themselves for the lives they will lead in years to come.

    The need for such knowledge is pressing because our ideas about educating young people are still shaped by tradition, whereas the realities they have to confront are changing rapidly. Families are not as stable as they were a generation ago, the information needed to thrive in our culture differs greatly from what was necessary forty years ago, and the kinds of jobs that will be available a decade from now are hard to imagine and even harder to predict. Yet families, schools, and the broader cultural environment that supposedly prepares youth for the future still operate with an outdated understanding of what it takes for a child to reach a productive adulthood. This book presents information crucial to updating our knowledge for a new age.

    For most of human history, young people were not faced with deciding what to do when they grew up. Adult careers were few and predictable, and the division of labor was simple: women gathered, men hunted (Lee and DeVore 1975). "In a small group like the hunting band ... all men learn the same activities, such as the skill in the hunt or in war" (Washburn and Lancaster 1975, 298). From the earliest years, children rehearsed the productive roles they would play as adults. At about the age of two, Inuit boys were taught to shoot ptarmigan with tiny bows while their sisters helped their mothers find berries and cure leather. In herding societies, small children first learned to tend goats, then sheep, and finally cattle. Most adolescents followed the path their parents did. The transition from childhood play to adult work did not require any change in attitudes, values, or knowledge; moreover, no questioning or complex decisions were involved.

    The situation has changed dramatically in the past few centuries, and the change is accelerating. Young people no longer live in a world where adult productive roles are predictable. They have little idea of what they will actually do when they grow up, and they do not know which role models, if any, are valid. They do not know what expectations are realistic, what skills are useful, or what values are relevant to their future. Most youth of high school age—as many as 80 percent by some measures—say that they would like to be professionals; this expectation is bound to be unfulfilled for the great majority.

    Now more than ever young people must learn the skills and values necessary to build successful careers. We have delegated to our schools the responsibility for preparing youth for the future, yet few would claim that schools are well equipped to prepare youth for realistic careers even in the present, let alone in the years to come. Somehow we must find better ways to inform youth about the kinds of opportunities that will be available to them when they grow up, as well as the habits, skills, and values they should acquire in preparation for those opportunities.

    This book addresses three sets of questions pertaining to the preparation of young Americans for the world of work. The first set is the images and expectations that teenagers have about their future careers. What do young people mean by "work"? What activities do they think of as being like work as opposed to play? What images do they associate with things that are like work? How do they experience work-like activities? What kind of work do they imagine doing as a career? Do these concepts of work differ by age, gender, social class, and ethnicity, and if so, how? The manner in which young people learn to think about work will likely affect the enthusiasm and optimism with which they will face their occupational future. Positive associations with work activities will help students have positive expectations and eagerly seek work opportunities. Conversely, if they learn that work is boring and meaningless, a creative and motivated approach toward future career options will be harder to come by.

    The second set of questions deals with what impact the social environment has on young people's career expectations and work ethic. How does the family help teenagers develop habits and values that will be useful in their careers? What is the role of schools in providing academic preparation and career counseling? How does the peer group—that network of interaction among friends and acquaintances—affect teenagers' views of the working world? There is no question that differences in child-rearing patterns have a crucial effect on adolescents' preparation for the opportunities and demands of the workplace. We all approach our careers with different amounts of useful knowledge, or "cultural capital," inherited from our families. We also invest different amounts of time and energy in the development of this capital: Some spend most of their time hanging out with friends, while others prefer to spend time studying or developing complex skills. The social milieu of family, schools, and friends greatly determines how cultural capital will be invested.

    The third set of questions explores the actual work experiences teenagers have and their transition into occupational roles one or two years after graduation from high school. What kinds of jobs do young people take at different ages? What types of experiences do they report when working? Who enjoys work, and why? How do different jobs affect self-esteem? After high school, how is the passage to adult work status accomplished?

    Because of the increasing pace of technological and social change, it is imperative to begin collecting hard facts about how young people prepare for a productive and engaged adult life. We are fortunate that this study allows us to answer, at least tentatively and provisionally, some of the questions necessary to an understanding of how teenagers find their way into the world of work.

Images and Expectations of Work

It could be argued that teenagers' values and attitudes about work are largely irrelevant to the determination of their future occupations. According to this perspective, a career is predetermined by social position and unfolds according to the opportunities afforded by the economic system. Individual values matter little in comparison with environmental realities. For instance, the elite who can afford to attend select private preparatory schools such as Phillips Academy or Andover will learn the social skills common to those at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid (Cookson and Persell 1985). After a stint in a prestigious college, these young people will start predictable careers in the banks and corporations where their families have prospered in the past. At the other end of the scale, the children of single-parent, poor families will attend schools where little learning may occur. Many of these young people can look forward to a future of unemployment, job insecurity, or menial work. Between these two extremes, the great majority of young people will find their places in the occupational structure according to family background and regardless of their individual values and beliefs about work.

    Another determinant of occupational outcomes is the macroeconomic environment in which young people live. Respect for hard work makes little difference if the community cannot provide a job. A strong work ethic was of little help to the Irish farmers of the mid-1800s when the potato crop failed. The once-bustling industrial cities of northern England are now increasingly obsolete; in the 1990s the unemployment rate in Liverpool was 15 percent, and one out of three young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four was out of work (Morrison 1994). In the United States, unemployment rates vary dramatically by region and race, approaching 40 percent for young African-American males (U.S. Department of Commerce 1997).

    The extreme consequences to society of environmental deterioration were documented by Turnbull (1972) among the Ik of Uganda. In that culture, the inability to produce enough food to support the population led to a general breakdown in values and social ties that approached the Hobbesian nightmare of a "war of all against all." Similar situations are all too familiar in Cambodia, Somalia, and parts of South America. Clearly, personal attitudes about work will make little difference if a society loses its capacity to produce. It also appears that people's attitudes affect both their own opportunities and society's ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Psychologists such as David McClelland (1961) have argued that individuals with a strong need to achieve will find better jobs and advance further occupationally. Moreover, societies in which the need for achievement is more widespread will be more economically viable because they will favor technological innovations and entrepreneurship.

The Role of a Work Ethic

The classic formulation of the effects of personal values on the economy was Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1922. Weber argued that communities that prospered in Europe and the Americas did so because, in adopting Protestantism, they had been compelled by the logic of their beliefs to place a high value on work and on material accomplishments. The Reformation's rejection of the Roman Catholic Church and its sacraments left Protestants without the comfort of absolution and the assurance that their souls would be saved for eternity. John Calvin found a solution: It was unlikely that God intended to damn for eternity a person to whom He had given success in this life. Prosperity became a sign of inclusion among God's elect, and hard work and wealth signified His grace. Weber claimed that this conflation of material and spiritual success enabled those parts of the world that adopted Protestantism to prosper. Because Protestants literally found salvation in their work, they worked harder than people from cultures in which salvation hinged on church-administered forgiveness.

    The current status of the Protestant work ethic has been widely debated. It seems clear that the early spiritual fervor that prompted Puritans to toil toward proof of election is no longer a strong source of motivation, as Weber himself had recognized by the first third of the twentieth century. This does not mean, however, that the value of work has necessarily diminished in our society. Many surveys attest to the fact that we still consider work to be one of the most central concerns in our lives (W. E. Upjohn Institute 1973). Yankelovich (1981), for example, found that 84 percent of men and 77 percent of women said that they would continue to work even if a large inheritance made a job unnecessary.

    However, the reasons that people value work seem to have changed considerably in the past few decades. Whereas the early Puritans may have seen work's dividends as a sign of divine goodwill, by World War II most people saw work almost exclusively as a means of material advancement and security. It was not until the 1960s that young people began to think of work as a way to achieve personal fulfillment (W. E. Upjohn Institute 1973; Featherman 1980). Recently, material concerns have become relatively more salient again, with an added twist: Young people value work because it provides the means to indulge expensive leisure and consumption habits.

    The value attributed to work has changed over time. In the earliest stages of a hunting-and-gathering economy, work could scarcely be said to exist because it was so undifferentiated from the rest of life. A hunt was partly a necessity, partly a binding tradition, partly a social occasion and a religious ritual, as well as a sporting event where personal prowess could be established and expressed. Each activity seems to have had these multiple functions and could not be considered as exclusively work or play. In such situations it does not make much sense to speak of the value of work because it cannot be separated from the value of life as a whole.

    Rhythms of work and leisure began to diverge after large-scale farming was introduced about ten thousand years ago. Although singing, ritual, and sociability were still strong elements of agricultural work, the new farming technology made forced labor possible and thus introduced the experience of work alienation. Still, however, farmers viewed their work as a natural necessity, an unquestioned part of living on a par with breathing and sleeping.

    Another consequence of the agricultural revolution was that as it progressed it made the division of labor possible. Five thousand years ago, people living in the early cities could, for the first time in history, learn and practice different occupations. Young people could see streets full of millers, bakers, masons, weavers, teamsters, scribes, and priests, each using different skills and knowledge. A person's job began to define his or her identity. In choosing an occupation, a individual took on an entire way of life. Work became valued as an means of acquiring a sense of self as well as status in society.

    The relationship between identity and occupation became even closer after the Reformation. As a result of the equation of worldly success with divine grace, work became a sign of the vocation that a person was called to fulfill within God's design. It was this spiritual value placed on work that is supposed to have made the Protestant work ethic such a powerful force for economic change (Weber 1930). The view of work as a calling further served to transform occupations from a natural necessity into a much more personalized and individualistic undertaking.

    Until quite recently, however, free occupational choices were still relatively rare. Sons and daughters usually followed in their parents' footsteps. As recently as two centuries ago, laborers in many parts of the world were forbidden to leave the estate where they were born, and strict guild regulations excluded newcomers from practicing hereditary crafts. Although even today doctors are often doctors' children and farmers tend to be the children of farmers, explicit barriers have been drastically reduced. We have entered an era in which work has become a personal choice. Rather than drawing one's identity from the job, a job is now more and more perceived as an extension and a fulfillment of individual potential, and therein lies its main value.

    As our attitudes toward work become increasingly reflective, and personal freedom and satisfaction in work become more essential, our increased awareness has resulted in an ever-harsher duality. On the one hand, work that is freely chosen and that allows personal growth and expression is valued more than ever; on the other, work that is obligatory and alienating is felt to be a burden. The fact that our historical attitudes toward work have changed as a result of technological transformations and an increased capacity to reflect on the human condition does not guarantee that this line of development will continue. Reversals are always possible. A severe economic downturn or a protracted technological stagnation following the exhaustion of natural resources may again change the value of work for our grandchildren or their descendants. If security and survival once again become paramount considerations, personal fulfillment on the job will have to yield to more immediate concerns. Still, if material progress continues on its present course, without major stoppages or reversals, the value of work will inevitably change in ways that are difficult to predict. If, for example, the development of nanotechnologies results in tiny electronic robots doing all the production and maintenance work traditionally done by humans, work might turn into purely mental operations or might refer to something that people do just for enjoyment.

    In the meantime, however, a certain positive evaluation of work—a positive work ethic—seems to be necessary to socialize children into adulthood. Without it we might expect an increasingly inefficient, demoralized, and passive population unable to exploit opportunities. But upon what would such an ethic be based? We cannot assume that our children will grow up with the belief that work is a natural necessity. Nor is the idea of work as a vocation tenable any longer: Jobs change too quickly, employers feel diminished responsibility for their workers, and religious motivations are less common than they once were. Valuing work as a means of personal expression is a possibility, but one that at present is open to few. Most young people will be severely disappointed if they expect their jobs to be interesting and creative.

Intrinsic Rewards and the Experience of Work

Most people have no choice but to work. Adults spend roughly 40 percent of their waking lives working, not because they want to but because they must. Survival needs and self-respect dictate that they must invest the most substantial portion of their energy in productive activities. It is generally thought that because work is necessary it must always be alienating. Even the Bible tells us that Adam and Eve did not need to work so long as they were in God's favor but were cursed to do so after the Fall. It is an axiom of modern life that one works only to make enough money to pay the mortgage, put the children through school, take pleasant vacations, look forward to a secure old age, and perhaps leave some of it behind. "Thank God It's Friday!" has become a mantra for workers in all classes who can hardly wait for the weekend to begin.

    Yet, despite all the prejudices we learn in our culture, men and women still say they would keep working even if they did not have to. It is also true that workaholism, or an excessive dedication to one's job, is just as real as alienation from work. Furthermore, a careful look at how adults feel in their everyday lives shows that they report being more satisfied, strong, creative, active, and happy when they are working than when they are not (Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre 1989). How is this possible?


Excerpted from BECOMING ADULT by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider. Copyright © 2000 by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Barbara Schneider. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables ix
List of Figures xi
Acknowledgments xiii
Preface xv
Part 1 Adolescent Views of Work
1 The Evolving Nature of Work 3
Images and Expectations of Work 6
Preparing Teenagers for Work 13
2 The Design of the Study: Sample and Procedures 21
Sample Selection: Sites and Schools 22
School Types 23
Student Selection 25
Instruments 27
Data Collection 33
Base-Year Findings 34
3 Envisioning the Future 39
Expectations of the Future 40
Expectations for Specific Careers 44
Occupational Values 48
Learning About Future Careers 51
Work-Related Motivations and Future Orientation 56
The Good News 60
The Not-So-Good News 61
Part 2 Learning to Work
4 Images of Work and Play 67
What's Work, What's Play? 69
What Activities Are Perceived As Like Both Work and Play? 75
Activities That Are Neither Work Nor Play 77
"Workers" and "Players" 80
Teenagers' Experience in Paid Employment 87
The Conundrum of Work in Adolescence 92
5 Learning to Like Challenges 95
The Relationship Between Enjoyment and Challenges: The Flow Model 96
Flow and the Quality of Experience 99
The Variety of Challenges in Adolescence 111
6 Families and the Forming of Children's Occupational Future 113
Measuring Support and Challenge 116
The Relation of Family Context to Adolescent Attitudes and Experiences 117
Family Context and School Outcomes 119
Narratives of Family Life 128
Parenting and Adolescent Development 138
7 The Quality of Classroom Experiences 141
Where Do Students Spend Their Time in School? 142
How Students Experience Different Classroom Activities 145
When Optimal Learning Experiences Occur in Class 148
What Do Students Think About in Class? 149
Student Experiences in Different School Subjects 150
What Students Say About School Subjects in Relation to Their Future 154
How Classroom Experiences Differ by Ability Placement 157
Individual Differences: Who Experiences Flow in Class 158
What Is Missing in Academic Classes? 162
Part 3 Transitioning From High School
8 Guiding Students into the Future: Three Schools of Thought 167
Opportunity Structures in High Schools: A Function of Resources 168
Middle Brook High School: A Tradition of Educating 173
Del Vista High School: Everyone Can Succeed 180
Grove High School: School as a Road to Work 187
Three High Schools--Three Schools of Thought 196
9 Paths After High School 199
Background Characteristics and Paths After High School 202
The Impact of School Experiences 204
What Determines the Paths Taken After High School 208
10 Making the Transition to Adulthood 213
Personal Strengths for a Productive Adulthood 215
Social Supports for a Productive Adulthood 225
Implications for Educational Policy 233
Appendix A. Site Descriptions 237
Appendix B. Instruments 241
Appendix C. Variable List 243
Notes 257
References 271
Index 279
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