Recognition of the life stage between childhood and adulthood as a subject of modern scientific inquiry began in the early twentieth century with the publication of Antonio Marro’s La Puberta (1898) and G. Stanley Hall’s highly influential compendium Adolescence (1904).In Europe, romantic conceptions of a sexually charged, troubled youth (e.g., in Rousseau’s Emile) circulated among the socially concerned. In America, an established tradition of cautionary literature emphasized the impressionable nature of young people and their vulnerability to sin (e.g., in the essays and sermons of Cotton Mather). Hall incorporated many of these ideas into a Darwinian framework to conjure an ”adolescence” recognizable to his readers (Ross 1972). Although the work is viewed as a curious and difficult amalgam today, it nevertheless emphasized themes that continue to shape the study of youth.

Hall viewed adolescence through the lens of Ernst Haeckel’s biogenetic principle, which holds that the human life span recapitulates the phases of human biological and social evolution (Gould 1977). Hall maintained that late childhood corresponds to a period of peaceful savagery in the distant past, whereas adolescence represents a ”neo-atavistic” period of migration into a challenging environment, which prompted physical, social, and psychological conflict and growth. This characterization of the adolescent, as troubled by all-encompassing turmoil, was contested early in the twentieth century by prominent behavioral scientists such as Edwin Thorndike (1917) and has been repeatedly challenged since then, perhaps most famously by Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) (but see Freeman 1983; Cote 1994). Likewise, sociologists such as Robert and Helen Lynd (1929) and August Hollingshead (1949) found little evidence of pervasive trouble among the youth of Middletown or Elmtown. Contemporary behavioral scientists take a more moderate view than Hall’s, depicting adolescence as a time of both change and continuity (e.g., Douvan and Adelson 1966). Nevertheless, the study of adolescence has been indelibly marked by the ”storm and stress” motif.

Hall also maintained that adolescents are highly responsive to adult guidance. Drawing on work by Edward Cope, a leading American proponent of the biogenetic principle, he believed that the influence of the environment in producing acquired characteristics that were then transmissible by heredity was greatest during adolescence. The implication of this Lamarckian view was momentous: The future development of the human race depended on improvements in the adolescent (Hall 1904, v. 1, p. 50). Indeed, as a leader of the Child Study Movement, Hall forcefully argued for collaborative efforts between pedagogy and the emerging discipline of psychology, creating schools that push adolescents to their physical and mental limits, and effect the ”moral rejuvenation” of youth, society, and indeed the human race. A view of adolescence as a source of manifold revitalization was especially appealing to Hall’s readership, a Gilded Age middle class weary from concern over urbanization and the perceived cultural and eugenic threats posed by large-scale immigration into the United States (Kett 1977; Ross 1972). The view that adults can constructively regulate the socialization of youth is reflected in continuing scientific and public interest in the settings of youth (e.g., the workplace) and their implications for development.

Hall’s Adolescence was an interdisciplinary work, and drew from a wide range of sources, including writings by early sociologists such as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Gustave Le Bon, and Adolphe Quetelet. The interdisciplinary study of youth remains an important theme, with many fields recognizing adolescence as a significant area of inquiry, including psychology (Petersen 1988), history (Modell and Goodman 1990), and anthropology (Schlegel and Barry 1991). Yet each discipline has its unique presuppositions and focal points. Psychologists tend to focus on adolescents’ cognitive, motivational, and emotional capacities; their maturation (often along universalistic lines, as one finds in the work of Piaget and Erikson), their interrelationships, and how they are shaped by experiences in proximal settings, including the family, peer group, school, and workplace. Anthropologists and historians focus on the range of experiences that adolescence encompasses across cultures and through historical time: the existence of the adolescent life phase, its distinctive social and cultural traditions, and interrelationships among youth, other age groups, and social institutions.

Sociological studies of adolescence often overlap with these concerns, reflecting interests in the social settings of youth and their implications for the self, as well as variability in this stage of life across societies and through historical time. Yet sociologists have also maintained a unique view by drawing on the life course paradigm as an analytic framework. The life course focuses on age-graded roles, opportunities, and constraints; how these differ through historical time, and how they shape the biography. The analytic focus is on the structural complexity and diversity of social settings through time and place, as well as the plasticity of humans in these settings (Dannefer 1984).

The remainder of this entry will focus on three distinctive features of adolescence as viewed from a life-course perspective (see Table 1). The first feature concerns adolescence as a life phase in historical perspective: Has adolescence been a recognized part of the life course through historical time? And how have the factors that mark the transition both into and out of adolescence changed? Implicit in the concept of markers that distinguish adolescence from childhood and adulthood is the rate of movement from one phase to the next. Accordingly, the second feature concerns how quickly young people move through the adolescent role set and the social circumstances that promote an accelerated life course.

The third feature focuses on the central role of institutionalized pathways through adolescence. In this context, pathways refer to routes from childlike dependence on the family of origin to the autonomies of adulthood. At the same time, individuals actively construct their lives. Within the structured pathways from childhood to adulthood, how do adolescents actively shape their biographies? Throughout this essay, social historical accounts are presented to underscore the highly variable nature of adolescence in the last two centuries; in turn, these accounts are juxtaposed with current sociological efforts to understand the social worlds of youth. The entry concludes by considering the dual role of sociologists in the study of adolescence: To contribute to substantive debates about the place of youth in society, but also to identify how the contours of these debates are themselves the products of social forces.

Table 1 Adolescence As a Phase of the Life Course  

Features of Adolescence

Core Idea

1. Adolescence in social historical perspective

Variability in the adolescent experience can be studied through the social history of youth.

A. Historical permanence of adolescence

Adolescence is a semi-autonomous phase of life that is not of modern origin. Adolescence is always changing in response to social forces.

B. The boundaries of adolescence

Adolescence is differentiated from childhood and adulthood by transition markers and roles.

(1) From childhood to adolescence

The pubertal transition was not always a critical marker between childhood and adolescence.

(2) From adolescence to adulthood

The transition markers have been compressed and their sequence has become more complex.

2. Pace of movement through adolescent roles

Social stressors may promote rapid movement into, through, and out of adolescent roles.

3. Pathways through adolescence

Pathways direct youth through social positions in organizations.

A. Pathways in the school

This pathway is defined by the transition to 8th grade, tracks, and transitions out of high school.

B. Pathways in the workplace

This pathway is defined by the adolescent work career: extent of work involvement, quality of work, and fit with other roles and life goals.

C. Agency in pathways

Adolescent planfulness is a critical resource with which to actively negotiate the life course.

Two additional features of adolescence are not covered in this entry. One involves the social relationships of youth, a subject that has been examined from several vantage points. Considerable attention has been devoted to the ”sociometric” properties of peer relationships, mapping out affiliations among young people in high schools (see Hallinan and Smith, 1989 for a contribution to this tradition). Relatedly, sociologists have also examined the typical personalities, behavioral patterns, and group identities of youth as they reflect responses to the social organization of the high school and this phase of life (e.g., Matza 1964). Sociologists have also focused on youth and their intergenerational relationships: How youth are integrated into adult society (for example, see Coleman 1994), how they and their parents interrelate (for a useful review, see Dornbusch 1989), and how youth serve as agents of social change (for a classic statement, see Mannheim 1928/1952). The second feature is juvenile delinquency (see JUVENILE DELINQUENCY).


Each phase of life reflects social norms and institutional constraints and serves as a principal source of identity for the individual by specifying appropriate behaviors and roles (Elder 1980). The study of adolescence as a life phase requires that it be situated in the life course, that its distinctive features be identified in comparison to both childhood and adulthood. Indeed, adolescence is frequently depicted as a transitional period of semiautonomy, reflecting movement from the complete dependence of children on their parents to the establishment of one’s own livelihood and family in adulthood (e.g., Kett 1974; Katz 1979; Gillis 1974). Yet the study of adolescence as a life phase also requires that it be situated in history, that the changing norms and institutions that shape adolescence be identified, and correspondingly, that the changing nature of adolescent semiautonomy be recognized. Within this frame of life-stage analysis, social scientists have studied the historical permanence of adolescence and the factors that have circumscribed this phase of life, marking its beginning and end.

“Adolescence” in historical time. Initial efforts to interpret the social history of youth concluded that adolescence did not exist before the modernization of societies (modernization refers to a constellation of societal changes thought to mark a break with previous forms of social organization: rapid technological changes, the emergence of market economies, urbanization, industrialization, the decline of agricultural life, secularization, broad-based political participation, the use of currency, and the spread of science [Kleiman 1998]). Norbert Elias (1994) suggested that children and adults became increasingly distinct in their behaviors as etiquette became more widespread and refined, particularly with the collapse of feudal societies. Indeed, Elias implied that the life span recapitulates the history of manners, an instance of Haeckel’s biogenetic law.

More focused on youth was Philippe Aries’s path-setting Centuries of Childhood (1962). Drawing on a diverse array of evidence—including art history, linguistics, and literature—Aries argued that in medieval times children merged directly into adult roles starting at around seven years of age. Medieval society distinguished between adults and nonadults, but, in the latter category, distinctions were not maintained between children and adolescents. Most medieval and premodern children did not attend school, but were incorporated into adult life as quickly as possible by way of daily interactions with their elders in tightly knit communities. The few youth who did attend school remained integrated in adult society by way of a vocational curriculum designed largely to train lawyers and the clergy. According to Aries, beginning as early as the sixteenth century, a wide range of factors—from Cartesianism to technological advancements—led to the prolongation of childhood and the emergence of adolescence as a life phase. Youth were to be educated in age-segregated settings according to curricula that were less concerned with vocational training. With this prolongation of education and segregation from the adult world, adolescence emerged as a distinct age-graded identity.

Like Hall’s Adolescence, Aries’s work was read by a receptive audience (Ben-Amos 1995). The prominent functionalist Kingsley Davis (1944) had already argued that the transmission of adult norms and values took less time in ”simpler” societies. Similarly, in his highly influential The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman (1950) argued that children could assume adult roles in tradition-directed societies (see also Eisenstadt 1956). But Aries was unique in his use of the historical record, and his work was a point of departure for the social history of children and adolescence that subsequently emerged in the 1970s (e.g., Demos 1970; Gillis 1974). Accordingly, some commentators maintained that adolescence was ”discovered” or ”invented” in the eighteenth century, as shown in part by more precise distinctions among words like ”child,” ”adolescent,” and ”youth” (e.g., Musgrove 1964). Yet a linguistic analysis says little about the historical permanence of adolescence as a set of transitional experiences marked by semiautonomy between childhood and adulthood. Indeed, many of Aries’s arguments have been seriously contested, including his description of education in medieval and Renaissance Europe and his lack of appreciation for the semiautonomous roles youth often played in these societies as servants or apprentices (e.g., Davis 1975).

The guiding principle of most contemporary social historical research is that adolescence reflects ever-changing values and societal structures, encompassing demographic, political, economic, and social realities. For example, Kett (1977) views American adolescence as a set of behaviors imposed on youth beginning in the late nineteenth century. This imposition was justified by ”psychological laws” (e.g., the necessity of religious decision during adolescence) freighted with middle-class concerns over the dangers of cities, immigrants, bureaucracies, and the pace of social change. Not surprisingly, social historians have detected ”different adolescences” in diverse settings defined by historical time and place.

Reflecting a continuing engagement with Aries, a focal point of social historical research has been the experience of adolescence before, during, and after the emergence of industrialism. An overview of research on England highlights the contingent nature of adolescence as a social category. Two realities were prominent in defining adolescence in premodern England (Gillis 1974). First, children of all social classes were often sent out of their household of origin to become servants for another family at about age seven. ”Binding out” coincided with the adoption of adult dress and codes of behavior, although the young person was viewed as neither fully adult nor child. Rather, this practice marked a form of semiautonomy: they participated in the labor market and resided outside their parents’ home, but they did not marry and they were not financially independent.

Second, marriage was often linked with the establishment of an independent household. The timing of this transition, which marked full adulthood, was in turn determined by when the father conveyed dowries for daughters and annuities or land to sons. Although the specifics of inheritance were often far more complex than the rule of primogeniture would suggest (Stone 1979), the net result was that marriage was typically postponed among the poor and lower-middle classes (that is, most of society) until young people were in their late twenties, with males marrying about two years later than females. For the proportion of the population that never married (about one in five), the commencement of adulthood hinged on occupational achievements and financial independence, which probably took place in the late twenties as well.

The coming of industrialism changed the adolescent experience dramatically. Reactions to industrialism differed greatly by class and were complicated by a wide array of factors. For many strata of society, however, economic livelihood was often enhanced by encouraging several wage laborers within the family (Gillis 1974). In turn, wage labor was a strong force in creating new and popular pathways into marriage. Concerns over inheritance were less common than in the earlier period, and kin ties were defined along more pragmatic lines that allowed youth greater freedom to marry and to establish a household. The absence of strong patriarchal control and new-found pocket money led many youth to courting and consumption patterns that shocked their elders. A new adolescence had emerged.

This broad-brush view varied in important ways from place to place, among social classes, and by gender (for related accounts of the English experience, see Anderson 1971; Musgrove 1964; Smelser 1959; for the Continental experience, see Mittauer and Sieder 1982; for the American experience see Demos 1970; Handlin and Handlin 1971; Hareven 1982; Kett 1977; Prude 1983). Yet it is instructive for two reasons. First, most scholars now agree that as a transitional stage of semiautonomy, adolescence existed before the emergence of modern societies, although it had distinctive ”premodern” characteristics. For example, premodern adolescence was typically not a period of identity formation, as Erik Erikson’s (1963) putatively universal model of psychosocial development maintains (Mitterauer 1992). Young people knew their occupational and educational futures, their parents arranged both their marriages and home-leaving, and the realities of inheritance, fecundity, and infant mortality dictated their reproductive behaviors. Furthermore, for most youth, few real political or religious options presented themselves. Although there are recorded instances of youth riots in urban areas and many adolescents and young adults were active in the Protestant Reformation, political and religious beliefs generally reflected the traditions and customs of the locale.

Second, although adolescence existed in preindustrial times, historians such as Aries maintain too sharp a distinction between premodern and modern phases of the life course (Ben-Amos 1995). The adolescences of both the preindustrial and contemporary West are not entirely dissimilar, suggesting that there are distinctly ”modern” features of preindustrial adolescence and ”traditional” features of contemporary adolescence. For example, many adolescents of both periods lack a parent. In seventeenth-century England, life expectancy was approximately thirty-two years, so that many youth, born when the mother was in her early to mid-twenties, lacked at least one parent. In contemporary society, parental separation is not uncommon through the early life course. For example, among cohorts born between 1967 and 1973, about 20 percent of white males and 60 percent of black males have lived in a mother-only family between birth and age 15 (Hill et al. 1999). Parental separation and absence today is a substitute for the parental mortality of the premodern period.

Similarly, the adolescence of both historical eras was a drawn-out process. Because of early home-leaving and late marriage, preindustrial adolescence in England spanned two decades. In contemporary times, it is commonly asserted that the span between puberty and the transition to adulthood is excessive because of delays in school completion, marriage, and home-leaving. Indeed, some sociologists have suggested adding a ”postadolescence” stage to the life course (e.g., Hurrelmann 1989). Although the duration of adolescence today appears extended against the backdrop of the early to mid-twentieth century, it is nevertheless brief when compared to preindustrial adolescence (about twelve versus twenty years).

In short, adolescence traces back to at least the High Middle Ages in the West, but its form and content have been remarkably responsive to social setting (Mitterauer 1992). Furthermore, one often observes both similarities and differences among the ”adolescences” defined by historical time and place.

The transition from childhood to adolescence.

Sociologists have not studied the transition to adolescence extensively, perhaps because it is typically equated with the onset of puberty, which strongly reflects individual differences in genetics, nutrition, and physical exertion (Tanner 1978). This lack of interest is unfortunate, as the effects of these factors on pubertal timing have always been conditioned by social circumstances (e.g., improvements in nutrition diffused through many societies on the basis of class and urban-rural distinctions; see Mitterauer 1992).

In any event, historical analyses suggest that puberty was not always the primary marker of the transition to adolescence. By today’s standards, physical changes associated with puberty occurred notably later in the premodern and early modern periods. For example, the average age of menar-che was about fifteen for girls in early eighteenth-century America and final height was not attained among men until around age twenty-five (Kett 1977). Sources from mid-sixteenth century Europe suggest even later dates and a much more gradual progression of physical changes than is observed today (for a review of earlier sources and their critical evaluation, see Tanner 1981).

In the premodern period, young people were probably viewed as semi-autonomous when they were sent to other households as servants or apprentices (often between ages seven and ten). Other local customs (such as religious confirmation and conversion, and membership in a wide array of village groups) also marked the end of childhood, and these frequently occurred before the pubertal transition. Thus historical evidence suggests that physical changes associated with puberty were not prominent factors that distinguished children from adolescents, and this generalization may be valid into the mid-nineteenth century, when improvements in nutrition began to take hold for large segments of society. Indeed, the pubertal transition often represented an important step into adult roles. Before the mid-nineteenth century, puberty in America was associated with a sense of rising power and energy and the ability to assume adult work responsibilities. It was largely after the Civil War that puberty came to represent a vulnerable and awkward stage closely associated with the adolescence of today (Kett 1977).

The transition from adolescence to young adulthood. A range of ”transition markers” are typically used to indicate movement out of adolescence and into adulthood. These include leaving school, starting a full-time job, leaving the home of origin, getting married, and becoming a parent. These markers can not be used uncritically, however, because their relevance in defining stages of the life course changes through historical periods (Mitterauer 1992). Furthermore, although young people in the contemporary West rely on these markers to distinguish between adolescence and adulthood, they also draw on other criteria, including cognitive self-sufficiency, emotional self-reliance, and behavioral self-control (Arnett and Taber 1994). Nevertheless, most sociological research has focused on these transition markers and has generated valuable insights about the changing life course. Paradoxically, many commentators argue that markers of the transition from adolescence to adulthood have become both more standardized and variable.

Standardization: The compression of transition markers. Standardization reflects the increasing importance of age-grading and is seen in the increasing ”compactness” of transition markers, particularly the ages of school completion, first job, and marriage. Theorists argue that the organization of public services, transfer payments, and employment opportunities according to age renders the life course more orderly and calculable (Beck 1992; Kohli 1986). Also, as the state increased the number of rights that an individual could claim on a universalistic, standardized basis, it also restricted the individual’s right to organize many aspects of life (e.g., with respect to education and entry into, and exit from, the labor market) (Buchmann 1989).

Evidence from historical demography suggests that the transition to adulthood has indeed become more standardized. Examining the prevalence of different female life-course patterns (e.g., spinster, dying mother, widowed mother) among cohorts of women born between 1830 and 1920, Uhlenberg (1969) observes a convergence on the ”typical” pattern, involving marriage, having children, and surviving with husband until age 55. Among women born in 1830, about 21 percent experienced this ”typical” pattern in contrast to about 57 percent of women born in 1920. In addition, the age range in which women typically married and had children narrowed. The primary factor promoting standardization of the life course was improvement in mortality due to the management of contagious and infectious diseases such as smallpox, typhoid and scarlet fever, diphtheria, and measles. Similarly, the time it took 80 percent of both men and women to leave the household of origin, marry, and establish their own households decreased markedly between 1880 and 1970 among those who experienced these transitions (Modell et al. 1976). A considerable body of evidence suggests that the transition to adulthood was standardized between about 1830 and 1960, as measured by a constriction of the time in which most people pass through a range of transition markers (for further discussion, see Shanahan forthcoming).

Theoreticians have emphasized the critical role of ”modernity” in explaining this long-term pattern, but this formulation, with its connotation of a monotonic pace and continuous process, has not been supported by empirical study. Instead, age standardization has been affected by historically specific conditions, including improvements in health (Uhlenberg 1969) and age-grading in the school system (Hogan 1981). And as historians have noted, legal reforms, public debates about the rights and responsibilities of age groups, and cultural innovations have come into play at different times and with varying degrees of import (Kett 1977; Modell 1989; Zelizer 1994). Evidence thus points to a long-term trend of compression of the transition markers, but that trend reflects manifold factors proceeding at an uneven pace.

Variability: The complex sequencing of transition markers. Variability is found in the increasing complexity of role overlap and sequencing during the transition to adulthood. Theorists of modernity maintain that as individuals were freed from the traditional constraints of family and locale, they were able to exercise more agency in the construction of their biographies (e.g., Beck 1992; Giddens 1991). Consistent with these arguments, Modell, Furstenberg, and Hershberg (1976) observe that as transition markers occurred in briefer periods of time, they exhibited greater diversity in their sequencing. Between 1880 and 1970, the familial and nonfamilial transition markers increasingly overlapped, creating variability in the transition to adulthood in the form of more sequence patterns of school completion, leaving home, starting a family and career, and becoming a parent.

Hogan (1981) provides important empirical evidence for variability in the sequencing of markers among cohorts born between 1907 and 1946. The percentage of men experiencing an ”intermediate nonnormative” order of transition markers (beginning work before completing school or marriage before beginning work but after school completion) increased from about 20 percent in the cohorts born between 1907 and 1912 to about 30 percent for men born in 1951. The prevalence of ”extreme nonnormative” ordering (marriage before school completion) increased from less than 10 percent among cohorts born between 1907 and 1911 to over 20 percent for cohorts born between 1924 and 1947. ”Modernity” has a large negative effect on the prevalence of the normative pattern, but a large positive effect on the prevalence of the extreme nonnormative pattern. That is, in historical times marked by greater educational attainment, lower infant mortality, greater longevity, and fewer youth in the adult labor market, men are more likely to make extremely nonnormative transitions to adulthood. Evidence thus suggests a trend toward individualization of the life course as found in the increased variability in the sequencing and overlap of transitions (for further discussion, see Shanahan forthcoming).


A conception of adolescence as bounded by markers implies a normative rate of movement through roles that indicate childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Accordingly, influential accounts of youth view adolescence as a transitory period, marking normatively paced movement from childlike to adult roles (e.g., Linton 1942). The individual is construed as more or less adultlike depending on the acquisition of symbols, the provision of opportunities, and demands for responsibility that indicate adulthood. With respect to the second decade of life, behavioral scientists recognize three forms of an accelerated life course, reflecting the nonnormatively rapid (1) transition into adolescence, (2) movement through adolescence, and (3) transition into adulthood. These manifestations of the accelerated life course are frequently linked to stressors operating on the parents and the young person.

Precocious youth represent an early form of accelerated life course in American history. Since at least the mid-eighteenth century, some young people have been portrayed as astonishingly adultlike in their intellectual, moral, physical, and social capacities. Early American history is replete with admiration for youth who grew up in log cabins only to rise to high levels of prominence while still young, a rise often linked to exceptional talents exhibited in childhood. Yet precocity was also viewed as an inconvenience. Thus, the father of an eleven-year-old graduate from Yale at the end of the eighteenth century lamented that his son was ”in no way equipped to do much of anything” (Graff1995, p. 47). Instances such as these became rare as the social institutions of youth became age-graded, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century.

In contemporary times, an accelerated life course may reflect an early transition to adolescence. For example, Belsky and his colleagues (1991) have proposed a sociobiological model of early menarche and sexual activity. According to this model, high levels of stress during childhood— reflecting marital discord, inconsistent and harsh parenting, and inadequate financial resources— lead to aggression and depression in late childhood, which in turn foster early puberty and sexual activity. In contrast, children whose families enjoy spousal harmony, adequate financial resources, and sensitive, supportive parenting tend to experience a later onset of puberty and sexual activity. That is, depending on environmental cues about the availability and predictability of resources (broadly defined), development follows one of two distinct reproductive strategies.

Empirical studies provide partial support for this model. Menarche occurs earlier among girls who live in mother-only households or with stepfathers. Conflict in parent-child relationships or low levels of warmth are also associated with earlier menarche (Ellis and Graber forthcoming; Graber, Brooks-Gunn, and Warren 1995; Surbey 1990). Drawing on longitudinal data, Moffitt and her colleagues (1992) report that family conflict and the absence of a father in childhood lead to earlier menarche, although this relationship is not mediated by any psychological factors examined in their study. Research findings to date, however, are open to genetic interpretation. It may be that early-maturing mothers transmit a genetic predisposition toward early puberty and the same genes produce traits in the mother that affect parenting (Rowe forthcoming) finds some support for both models. Maccoby (1991) suggests an additional class of explanations, namely that these findings reflect social psychological processes (e.g., the adolescent’s imitation of the mother’s permissiveness).

The accelerated life course may also involve the rapid assumption of autonomy not typically associated with adolescent roles. This form may appear in the adoption of the parent role by adolescents in their family of origin, what Minuchin (1974) refers to as the ”parental child.” Children and adolescents may respond to the family’s emotional and practical needs through activities such as serving as a confidant to a parent, mediating family disputes, and the extensive parenting of younger siblings. Young people may assume responsibilities such as these in single, working-parent homes, which can have positive consequences for adolescents but detrimental effects for younger children (Weiss 1979). The contextual and interpersonal factors that promote ”parentification,” however, are potentially numerous and complex, perhaps encompassing family structure, sibship size, marital dysfunction, and the employment status of the parents (Jurkovic 1997).

Likewise some critics of youth employment suggest that extensive involvement in the workplace during the high school years can promote ”pseudomaturity,” the appearance of adult status that nevertheless lacks the full set of rights and responsibilities that accompany adulthood. (Psychologists have also expressed concern about ”pseu-domaturity” among contemporary youth, although they define it as a disjunction between the apparent ability to play adult roles and a lack of ”commensurate psychological differentiation” [e.g., Er-ikson 1959].) For example, although youth may earn considerable amounts of money during high school, they spend a relatively high percentage of their income on entertainment because they lack the financial responsibilities of true adults (e.g., insurance, housing). In turn, this ”premature affluence” may interfere with the development of realistic financial values (Bachman 1983; Bachman and Schulenberg 1993). However, studies show that youth spend their earnings on a wide range of things, not all of which are concerned with leisure, including savings for future education, car insurance, and even loans and contributions to parents (Shanahan et al. 1996). Moreover, studies of families during the Great Depression suggest that economic hardship can lead to the assumption of more adultlike work responsibilities among children and adolescents, which can benefit the latter group (Elder 1974).

Finally, the accelerated life course may reflect a rapid transition to adulthood. For example, because young black men have markedly shorter life expectancies than white men, they often accelerate their transition behaviors (Burton et al. 1996). There may also be an important element of intentionality in the ”search for role exit” from adolescence (Hagan and Wheaton 1993). Although the desire to leave home, marry, and have children may be normative, the intent to exit the adolescent role set too early is nonnormative and often associated with deviant acts. Indeed, the search for adolescent role exits significantly predicts frequency of dating and the timing of first marriage and parenthood. That is, some adolescents may seek rapid transition to adulthood because they are substantially dissatisfied with their experience of adolescence as a life phase. In any event, sociologists have offered numerous explanations for adolescent parenthood including, for example, the lack of role models and opportunities that would otherwise encourage postponing intercourse and pregnancy (Brewster 1994).


The preceding discussion highlights the variable meanings of adolescence in the life course; a related issue is the structured pathways that constitute likely sequences of social positions through which the adolescent moves. Pathways reflect institutional arrangements that both provide and restrict opportunities, channeling youth from one social position to another. Pathways are a prominent feature in the school and workplace—and between these institutions (see ADULTHOOD)— where social forces match individuals to social opportunities and limitations. Pathways are also evident in the family, as a sequence of roles that the child assumes and that offer progressively greater autonomy.

Before the mid-nineteenth century in America, the immediate environments of youth were casual and unstructured; mortality and frequent moves from the home placed limits on the direct and sustained application of parental discipline, and schools were decidedly unstructured settings marked by violence and informality (Kett 1977). Between 1840 and 1880, a different viewpoint emerged in both Britain and the United States, a viewpoint that emphasized character formation in planned, ”engineered” environments. For example, Horace Bushnell’s influential Christian Nurture (1848) argued for carefully controlled settings that would promote in youth qualities necessary to succeed in a world threatened by urbanization and non-Protestant immigrants. By the end of the nineteenth century, efforts to standardize the settings of youth—particularly schools—led to the emergence of recognized tracks of educational and occupational experiences for young men entering the medical and legal professions. Educational and occupational pathways from adolescence to adulthood were becoming standardized.

Although pathways sort individuals and assign them to various positions in social systems, people are also active agents who attempt to shape their biographies. In life-course perspective, agency at the level of the person can be defined as the ability to formulate and pursue life plans. Young people are constrained and enabled by opportunity structures of school and work, but they also construct their life course through their active efforts. This section provides a set of examples that highlight structured pathways that describe likely sequences of social positions in terms of education and work. It also discusses sociological efforts to understand the active efforts of adolescents to shape their biographies in these structured settings.

Educational pathways through adolescence.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, youth fortunate enough to attend school typically started their educations late and attended class sporadically. Academies of education, not uncommonly a single room in a private residence, were eager to accommodate the seasonal demands of agriculture. Consequently student bodies encompassed a wide range of pupils, whose ages often said little about their academic accomplishments. This situation was more pronounced in district schools, where attendance was said to fluctuate from hour to hour. Furthermore, teaching was not yet an occupation that required credentials, and teachers frequently resorted to violence to impart lessons or to maintain order, as did the students in response to frequent humiliation.

At the college level, the violence was pronounced. There were riots at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, nightly stoning of the president’s house at Brown through the 1820s, and frequent beating of blacks, servants, fellow students, and professors (Kett 1977). During the early years of the republic, little in the educational system was standardized. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the educational system changed as Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and Calvin Stowe led the common school revival, aimed at creating regulated, controlled school settings. In addition to the efforts of early reformers, many social, economic, political, and cultural forces contributed to the standardization of schools, particularly in the late nineteenth century (Tyack 1974; Tyack, James, and Benavot 1987).

Today, the educational system is highly standardized and adolescent pathways through school are readily identifiable: Adolescent pathways through the educational system can be described in terms of the transition to the seventh grade and tracking through the high school years. A considerable body of sociological research also examines the many structured connections among secondary education, tertiary institutions such as colleges and vocational schools, and the workplace.

At the transition to seventh grade, children may remain in the same school (a ”K-8” system) or change to ajunior high school. The latter structure is thought to be more stressful by sociologists, as it typically brings with it a disruption in social networks and the student’s first exposure to a bureaucratic setting with a high degree of specialization. Students in K-8 systems continue to have one teacher and one set of classmates for all subjects, while students attending junior high school often have a different teacher and classmates for each subject. In fact, students in K-8 systems are more influenced by peers, date more, and prefer to be with close friends more than students making the transition to junior high school. The latter report higher levels of anonymity. Further, girls who make the transition to junior high school appear especially vulnerable to low levels of self-esteem when compared with girls in a K-8 system and boys in either system (Blyth et al. 1978; Simmons and Blyth 1987; Simmons et al. 1979).

It may be that the negative effects of the transition to junior high school are amplified as the number of transitions experienced by a young person increases. A ”focal theory of change” maintains that young people are better able to cope with significant life events serially rather than simultaneously (Coleman 1974). Some evidence supports this view: As the number of transitions— including school change, pubertal change, early dating, geographic mobility, and major family disruptions such as death—that students must cope with concurrently increase, their grades, extracurricular involvements, and self-esteem decrease (Simmons et al. 1987). These associations are particularly deleterious for girls. How the transition to seventh grade is organized can thus have pervasive implications for the well-being of youth.

Within secondary schools students are frequently assigned to ”tracks,” different curricula for students of differing talents and interests. Sociologists have identified several noteworthy features of tracks, including selectivity (the extent of homogeneity within tracks), electivity (the extent to which students choose their tracks), inclusive-ness (the extent to which tracks leave open options for future education), and scope (the extent to which students are assigned to the same track across subjects and through time). Scope—particularly the extent to which students are in the same track across grade levels—predicts math and verbal achievement, when earlier scores of achievement are controlled.(Gamoran 1992).

In turn, these differences in educational achievement largely reflect socialization and allocation processes (for a useful review, see Gamoran 1996). Socialization refers to systematically different educational experiences across tracks. Allocation refers to the decisions made by teachers to assign students to tracks, assignments that provide information to students about their abilities and that elicit differential responses from others. That is, students of differing ability are assigned to different educational opportunities, which in turn creates inequalities in outcomes, even if initial differences in ability are taken into account. Unfortunately, tracking systems are often unfair in the sense that students of similar ability are assigned to different tracks, and assignments may be based on factors other than intellectual talents and interests (see Entwisle and Alexander 1993). Furthermore, status allocations from primary through tertiary school and to the labor force are remarkably consistent (Kerckhoff 1993). The advantages or disadvantages of one’s position in the educational and occupational systems cumulate as individuals increasingly diverge in their educational and labor market attainments. Thus, educational tracks can exert substantial influence on socioeconomic achievements throughout the life course.

Pathways in the workplace. Work responsibilities have always indicated one’s status in the life course. Through the early nineteenth century in America, young people began performing chores as early as possible in childhood and often assumed considerable work responsibilities by age seven, either on the farm or as a servant in another household. Many youth were fully incorporated into the workforce with the onset of physical maturity, in the mid- to late teens (Kett 1977). During this same period, however, agricultural opportunities waned in the Northeast while expansions in commerce, manufacturing, and construction provided new employment for youth in and around cities. Many families adopted economic strategies whereby parents and children were involved in complex combinations of farming, work in factories, and other sources of wage labor (Prude 1983) or whereby entire families were recruited into factory work (Hareven 1982; for the case of England, see Anderson 1971; Smelser 1959).

The second Industrial Revolution, commencing after the Civil War and extending to World War I, led in part to less reliance on children as factory workers (Osterman 1979). Technological innovations in the workplace—the use of internal combustion engines, electric power, and continuous-processing techniques—created an economic context conducive to the consolidation of primary schools in the life course as many youth jobs were eliminated by mechanization (Troen 1985) and manufacturers required more highly skilled employees (Minge-Kalman 1978). These economic factors operated in concert with progressive political movements, as well as cultural, demographic, social, and legal changes (Hogan 1981; Zelizer 1985), all of which fueled debates about the appropriate role of youth in the workplace. These debates continue to the present, particularly focusing on the work involvements of high school students (for useful overviews, see Institute of Medicine/National Research Council 1998; Mortimer and Finch 1996). Today, almost all adolescents work in paid jobs and time commitments to the workplace can be substantial (Bachman and Schulenberg 1993; Manning 1990). Whereas youth work at the beginning of the twentieth century often centered around agriculture and involved family, kin, and neighbors, today’s adolescent is more frequently employed in ”entry-level” jobs among unrelated adults in the retail and restaurant sectors. These changes have prompted arguments that contemporary adolescent work interferes significantly with the basic developmental tasks of youth.

Yet the transition to paid work represents a large step toward autonomy and can promote a sense of contribution, of egalitarianism, and of being ”grown up” among youth. Although very little research has examined the adolescent work career, several generalizations are currently plausible. First, adolescents have work careers in that they typically progress from informal work (e.g., babysitting and yard work for neighbors) to a surprisingly diverse set of occupations as seniors in high school, a trend that is accompanied by an increase in earnings. That is, work tends to become more complex and to produce more earnings through the high school years (Mortimer et al. 1994).

Second, adolescent work can have positive or negative consequences, depending on the extent and the quality of the experience, as well as its meaning. For example, work of high intensity (that is, exceeding twenty hours of work on average across all weeks employed) curtails postsecondary education among boys and increases alcohol use and smoking among high school girls (Mortimer and Johnson 1998). But adolescents engaged in low-intensity work during high school have favorable outcomes with respect to schooling (for boys) and part-time work (for both boys and girls).

Third, the quality of work matters. For example, several studies show that jobs that draw on or confer skills deemed useful in the workplace are associated with feelings of efficacy during the high school years as well as success in the job market three years after high school (Finch et al. 1991; Stern and Nakata 1989). Similarly, adolescent work experiences can have positive implications for development depending on how they fit into the adolescent’s life. Thus, when earnings are saved for college, working actually has a positive effect on grades (Marsh 1991), and nonleisure spending (e.g., spending devoted to education or savings) may enhance relationships with parents (Shanahan et al. 1996). In short, the adolescent work career can pose positive or negative implications for subsequent attainment and adjustment.

Life course agency in adolescence. Whereas the concept of pathways reflects an interest in how organizations and institutions allocate youth to social positions and their attendant opportunities and limitations, young people are also active agents attempting to realize goals and ambitions. It is unlikely that most youth were agents in this sense before or during the founding of the republic. In a detailed study of autobiographical life histories between 1740 and 1920, Graff (1995) observes that lives marked by conscious choice and self-direction, a search for opportunities including social mobility, the instrumental use of further education, and risk-taking in the commercial marketplace, were atypical before the nineteenth century. In some accounts this emerging orientation was expressed in explicit emulation of the widely circulated autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, who emphasized planning, thrift, decision making, and independence. Before this period, the major features of the life course—including education, occupation, and family life—were largely determined by family circumstances. (The notable exception to a lack of decision making about one’s life was religious ”rebirth.” Departing from Catholic and Lutheran doctrine, religious sects such as the Anabaptists emphasized the adolescent’s conscious decision to be baptized and then lead an appropriately Christian life [Mitterauer 1992].)

This active orientation toward the life course gained currency as ”conduct-of-life” books in the first decades of the nineteenth century departed from Puritan hostility to assertiveness in order to emphasize the building of a decisive character marked by ”a strenuous will” (e.g., as found in John Foster’s popular essay ”Decision of Character” of 1805). The message was especially appealing to the large number of young men leaving rural areas for the city in search of jobs. Since that time, themes such as self-reliance, decisiveness, willpower, and ambition have recurred in popular advice topics and social commentaries directed to adolescents and their parents (Kett 1977). Indeed, a view of ”youth as shapers of youth” has become prominent among social historians of the twentieth century (for a superb example, see Modell 1989).

In contemporary times, a conception of life as shaped through decision-making, planning, and persistent effort is common. A particularly useful concept to study this phenomenon is planful competence, the thoughtful, assertive, and self-controlled processes that underlie selection into social institutions and interpersonal relationships (Clausen 1991a). Although these traits can be found in approaches to personality (e.g., conscientiousness), planful competence is uniquely concerned with the ability to select social settings that best match a person’s goals, values, and strengths. That is, planful competence describes the self’s ability to negotiate the life course as it represents a socially structured set of age-graded opportunities and limitations. Clausen (1991b, 1993) maintains that a planful orientation in mid-adolescence (about ages 14 and 15) is especially relevant to the life course because it promotes realistic decision-making about the roles and relationships of adulthood. That is, one’s self-reflexivity, confidence, and self-regulation at mid-adolescence lead to better choices during the transition to adulthood, choices that in turn have implications for later life. Clausen reasons that children are not capable of planful competence, but most adults possess at least some; therefore interindividual differences at mid-adolescence are most likely to differentiate people during the transition to adulthood and through later life. Adolescents who are planfully competent ”better prepare themselves for adult roles and will select, and be selected for, opportunities that give them a head start” (1993, p. 21).

Drawing on extensive longitudinal archives from the Berkeley and Oakland samples at the Institute of Child Welfare, Clausen (1991b, 1993) demonstrated that planful competence in high school (age 15 to 18 years) had pervasive effects on functioning in later life. Planfulness significantly predicted marital stability, educational attainment for both males and females, occupational attainment and career stability for males, and life satisfaction in later adulthood. Satisfaction with marriage was often associated with adolescent planfulness among men and women, especially among men who were capable of interpersonal warmth. Men who were more planful earlier in life reported greater satisfaction with their careers, more job security, and better relationships with their coworkers.

Some research suggests that the effects of planfulness are conditioned by historical experience, an insight that joins the concepts of pathways and agency. Drawing on the Terman Sample of Gifted Children, Shanahan and his colleagues (1997) examined the lifetime educational achievement of two cohorts of men who grew up during the Great Depression. The older cohort, those born between 1900 and 1910, often were in college or had just begun their careers when the Great Depression hit. The younger cohort, those born between 1910 and 1920, typically attended college after the Depression and began their careers in the post-World War II economic boom. For the older cohort, it was hypothesized that adolescent planful competence would not predict adult educational attainment. Rather, very high levels of unemployment during the Depression would support a prolonged education for this cohort—through continuity in or return to school— regardless of their planfulness. In contrast, planful competence in adolescence was expected to predict adult educational attainment in the younger cohort, which was presented with practical choices involving employment opportunities and further education.

As expected, planfulness at age fourteen positively predicted educational attainment, but only for the men born between 1910 and 1920, who often finished school during the postwar economic boom. Planful competence did not predict educational attainment for men from the older cohort, who typically remained in school or returned to school after their nascent careers floundered. Thus, for the older cohort, the lack of economic opportunity precluded entry into the workplace and under these circumstances, personal agency did not predict level of schooling. In short, the Terman men’s lives reflect ”bounded agency,” the active efforts of individuals within structured settings of opportunity.


A historically sensitive inquiry into the sociology of adolescence reveals several prominent features of this life phase. First, although adolescence as a state of semiautonomy between childhood and adulthood has long been part of the Western life course, it has nevertheless been highly responsive to social, political, economic, and cultural forces. Indeed, adolescence acts like a ”canary in the coal mine:” As successive generations of youth encounter adult society for the first time, their reactions tell us much about the desirability of social arrangements. These reactions have ranged from enthusiastic acceptance to large-scale revolt and have often led to the emergence of new social orders.

Second, the many ”adolescences” revealed through historical time and place are both different and similar in significant ways. Many supposedly universalistic accounts of social and psychological development would not describe adolescent experiences and interpretive frames in the past (Mitterauer 1992). On the other hand, few, if any, aspects of the adolescent experience are without precedent. Statistics on adolescent sexual behavior are met with great alarm today, and yet alarm was already sounded in pre-Colonial times: Leaving England for America in the 1630s, the Puritans hoped to establish an ”age-relations utopia” between young people and their elders, which had not been possible in the Old World because of the ”licentiousness of youth” (Moran 1991; for the related problem of adolescent pregnancy, see Smith and Hindus 1975; Vinovskis 1988). Likewise, contemporary debates about whether adolescents should be allowed to engage in paid work echo exchanges over child labor laws a century ago (Zelizer 1985). Analogous observations could be made about drug abuse, violence in schools, gangs, and troubled urban youth with diminished prospects.

Yet each generation of adults insists that its adolescence is uniquely vulnerable to social change and the problems that come with it. Indeed, this orientation has spawned a large and often alarmist and contradictory literature about the American adolescent (see Graff 1995, especially Chap. 6). Although many strands of scientific evidence show that adolescence as a state of semiautonomy has lengthened over the past several decades, a torrent of topics nonetheless warn of ”the end of adolescence.” And although many studies show that adolescence is not a period of sudden and pervasive distress, scientific journals devoted to adolescence are filled with contributions examining psychological disorder, substance use, antisocial behavior, sexually transmitted disease, delinquency, troubled relationships with parents, and poor academic performance. Denials of ”storm and stress” frequently accompany implicit statements of ”doom and gloom.”

Unfortunately, these negative images run the risk of defining adolescence (Graff 1995). Studies and social commentaries that highlight the troubled nature of youth may alert the public to social problems in need of redress, but they may also create dominant cultural images that ultimately define what it means to be an adolescent in negative terms, breeding intergenerational mistrust and, among youth, alienation (Adelson 1986).

In this context of research and representation, sociology has much to contribute to an understanding of adolescence. What is needed are balanced accounts of their lived experiences and how these vary by social class, race, gender, and other indicators of inequality. These descriptions need to be situated in both place and time. Place refers to the many contexts of youth, encompassing families and neighborhoods, urban and rural distinctions, ideologies, modes of production, and national and international trends. Time refers to the history of youth, with its many continuities and discontinuities, but it also refers to the life course, how adolescence fits into the patterned sequence of life’s phases. Through such efforts, sociologists can contribute to public discourse about youth and comprehend this discourse as being itself a product of social forces.

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