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Adolescent Rolelessness in Modern Society

by Elena O. Nightingale & Lisa Wolverton - 1993

Adolescents have no prepared, appreciated, approved place in society, so they tackle identity formation and development of self-worth and self-efficacy on their own. Society must change its view that youth are troubled or harmful and instead provide opportunities for meaningful roles for adolescents, particularly those without many years of formal education. (Source: ERIC)

The young are in character prone to desire and ready to carry any desire they may have formed into action. Of bodily desires it is the sexual to which they are most disposed to give way, and in regard to sexual desire they exercise no self-restraint. They are changeful too, and fickle in their desires, which are as transitory as they are vehement; for their wishes are keen without being permanent, like a sick man’s fits of hunger and thirst.


As this quotation from Aristotle illustrates, some of our views of adolescents have changed little over the centuries. The word adolescent is representative of the problems this age group faces. In addition to having a negative connotation, “adolescent” is defined largely by what it is not—neither child nor adult—legally, in status, role, or function. Adolescents have no prepared place in society that is appreciated or approved; nonetheless they must tackle two major tasks, usually on their own: identity formation and development of self-worth and self-efficacy. The current social environment of adolescents makes both tasks very difficult.

For these reasons, adolescents today are said to be suffering from “rolelessness.” Of course, they are not truly roleless because society in general, parents, and schools do set certain roles for them, though these roles are not as meaningful and productive as they could be. Adolescents also have other roles, most often determined by their peers, which are perceived by adults as undesirable. Thus, when we speak of “rolelessness" what we decry is that adolescents do not have contributing, active, productive roles that are consistent with and valued by adult society. Since current adolescent roles arose by default, much can be done to restructure these roles in positive ways.

The onset of adolescence is a critical period of biological and psychological change for every child. These changes are not often synchronized and individual variation is vast. For many in our society-adolescence involves dramatic changes in the social environment as well. For example, the transition from elementary to middle or junior high school or the easy access to potentially life-threatening substances and activities can make adolescence a particularly difficult time.

In the past ten to twenty years, rapid erosion of traditional family and social-support networks has added to the difficulties. Despite the biological, social, and technological changes impinging on adolescent development, especially in this century, there appear to be fundamental human needs that are enduring and crucial to healthy development and survival. These fundamental needs include the need to find a place in a valued group that provides a sense of belonging and the need to feel a sense of worth as a person.1 It is a challenging but not impossible task to find ways to fill these needs. Otherwise, the long period—10 to 15 years out of a life expectancy of 71.8 years for males and 78.5 years for females2—of biological maturity combined with social dependence and rolelessness can only contribute to the familiar litany of disenchantment with learning, drug abuse, early unplanned pregnancy, violence, injury, and other damaging behaviors.


Adolescents are a diminishing and precious resource. The population of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 in the United States has fluctuated between 18 and 24 million in the past 30 years, and is projected to remain approximately steady through the year 2000. In 1989, the population of 0-17-year-olds was 64 million3 with 2.5 million homeless.4 The ratio of Hispanic and/or nonwhite children age 0-17 to the total youth population was 26 percent in 1989 and is expected to increase to 33 percent in 2000 and to 45 percent by the year 2080 5 (see Figure 1).

In the last 100 years, however, both the population and the ratio of young people to adults have changed a great deal (see Figure 2). In 1890, youth 14-24 years of age numbered only 14.1 million while the ratio to the population aged 25-64 was 57 percent. By 1950, the population of young people had increased to 24.2 million but the ratio to the mature population segment had dropped to 32 percent.6 In 1989, the ratio remained steady at 32 percent, but the population aged 14-24 reached 40.1 million. By comparison, the ratio of persons over 65 to adults 25-64 rose from 16 percent, in 1950, to 24 percent in 1989.7 Therefore, while the number of adolescents has continued to increase, their proportion of the population as a whole has been almost cut in half since 1890—a change that took place primarily before 1950—while the proportion of elderly has increased. We should systematically consider how to enlist older and still vigorous people in helping the young.

For at least the last century, adolescence has been viewed as a distinct stage in human development. Previously, older children were termed “youths” and adolescence “the formative years” (for adult life) and children generally could more easily make the transition from childhood to adulthood. In earlier times, youths were likely to move into adult roles that were familiar—accepting adult tasks and responsibilities progressively as they grew up. The extended family and other adults were mirrors of what the young would become. Responsibilities increased with maturity, but there was little doubt about what was expected.


In the nineteenth century, urban youth, at age twelve or thirteen, both male and female, often went directly from school to work in order to contribute to the support of the family. Their assistance was needed by the family for survival and often children suffered from having to work under harsh conditions. Rural youth similarly contributed by working side by side with adults on the family farm from an early age. Particularly in the rural areas, children performed the same tasks as their parents, enjoyed the same types of entertainment, and had the same expectations of life.8 Adolescents were often aware early on that their role within the family and society would be similar to that of their parents, and their parents and other adults provided an abundance of role models. Moreover, the acceptance of adult responsibility occurred at, or even before, the time of the biological changes of puberty.


By 1900, most young people were less often needed to support the family. Stricter child labor laws were enacted and school years were extended. Now out of the work place and sequestered in school, youths were separated from adults for most of the day and had fewer adult responsibilities. Opportunities for interaction with adults decreased, as did communication between generations.

Due primarily to the control of many infectious diseases and better nutrition and hygiene, children over the past two centuries have been reaching puberty at younger ages. In the United States, 150 years ago, the average age of menarche was sixteen; today it is twelve and may still be dropping. The trend for boys is similar but more difficult to document. At the same time, the social changes described have postponed end of adolescence—and of dependence—until much later, sometimes until age twenty-five (for example, for those who study for a profession). This phenomenon of a ten-to fifteen-year period of physical maturity combined with social dependence—and rolelessness—is relatively new.

Not too surprisingly, a study reported in Being Adolescent most other studies, largely involving white working- and-middle-class youth) showed that the adolescents whose activities were followed spent 40 percent of their time on leisure activities and 27 percent alone. They averaged eighteen hours a week at menial jobs. Thirty-eight hours a week were spent in school (in contrast, children in Japan spend fifty-nine hour week in school and have sixty-nine more days in the school year). They spent only 4.8 percent of their time with their parents and 2 percent with adults who were not their parents—f or a total of only 7 percent of waking hours spent with adults. Half of the adolescents’ waking hours were spent with their peers, and they clearly lacked meaningful contact with caring adults. They worried most about school, their looks, and being liked. Except for school—an important exception—these worries may indicate a lack of concern about the adolescent’s role in the family and community.9 According to another study, the majority of adolescents do not consult or communicate with their parents on topics of importance, such as school, sex, or drugs (see Table 1).10 It seems that adolescence may have become a “waiting period” of enforced leisure, with few responsibilities and little meaningful contact with adults.

The relative isolation of adolescents from adults contributes to the view of adolescence as an alien subculture with no meaningful role in society. According to a 1986 Harris poll, 52 percent of adults see drug abuse as the most serious problem among youth. Less than half of adults polled believe that young people have a good education or are basically happy, or feel that parents in general do a good job, especially regarding values and discipline, or that the schools are doing a good job. And 75 percent of-adults polled feel that the government is not taking proper responsibility for youth. There seems to be concern that something is wrong, and a willingness to look outside the family for help. However, despite these negative perceptions of youth, the majority of adolescents in the United States do become productive citizens.



Inconsistency and ambiguity in defining adult responsibility are pervasive. Driving, one of the accepted rites of passage, may begin as early as age fourteen or as late as eighteen, depending on the state. In some states, execution is legal for crimes committed prior to age eighteen. But military service and voting remain set at eighteen. It is understandable that young people are confused and frustrated by inconsistencies in being allowed to assume adult responsibility for diverse actions of personal significance.

But the difficulties of transition to adulthood vary depending on the conditions in which adolescents find themselves. Relatively affluent youth are generally expected to go to college and their outlook is better, though not trouble free. In 1989, 40 percent of high school graduates were enrolled in college.11 The group that does not attend college encounters a variety of problems in making the transition to adulthood that college-bound youth do not share. Minority and inner-city youth in areas of concentrated poverty encounter the most obstacles to remaining in school. In 1989, only 23 percent of black male and 18 percent of Hispanic male high school graduates attended college.12

The transition to adulthood is probably easiest for college-bound youth because their adolescence, although lengthened by continued dependency on parents, is structured by years of study, athletics, and other activities, and because their parents have the energy and resources to create and access opportunities for them. Higher skill levels also make satisfying employment easier to obtain. College-bound students often consciously postpone other aspects of adulthood, such as marriage and childbearing, until school is completed and they are working and settled. They are future-oriented and not truly roleless, but the chosen roles may not be in line with adult desires. Too often adolescents—even those who are college bound-have become “takers” rather than “givers” in both family and society.13 In fact, even many adolescents who do work during high school and college do so in food-service or sales-not in career-related posts—to have money for personal items or entertainment to the detriment of their studies and other activities.14 In this way, work may even become dysfunctional to-maturity.

Noncollege youth have a rockier road. According to a report from The William T. Grant Foundation on noncollege youth in America, many of this group’s problems stem from the inability to find work at all or at a meaningful level and wage.15 Even while they are in school, and employment is badly needed, jobs are difficult to find. From 1960 to 1985, the unemployment rate among youths in school (age sixteen to seventeen) almost doubled, although it has declined somewhat between 1986 and 1989 [see Table 2). The unemployment rate among blacks is especially high-for black males it is 27 percent.


The problem continues after graduation from high school. In 1986, only 48.9 percent of males and 41.9 percent of females were employed full-time, a decrease from 72.7 and 57 percent, respectively, in 1968 (see Table 3). One important factor in the employment problem is that many corporations will not hire high school graduates, especially for career-track positions, until they are in their mid-twenties. Many employers think that recent high school graduates are irresponsible, unqualified, or simply inappropriate for many jobs. This leaves young people floundering and roleless for several years or working at menial and dead-end jobs. The jobs young people can obtain usually pay extremely low wages—too low to allow settling down or supporting a family. In 1985, only 42 percent of all males earned a real annual income at or above the three-person poverty line (see Table 4). The percentages were lower for black and Hispanic young men—24.9 and 35.4 percent respectively.16


William Julius Wilson cites the example of a twenty-nine-year-old black man who works as a dishwasher in Chicago. Still living at home, he has never been on welfare and has worked as a dishwasher for three years, making $4.85 an hour. Because his employer said he could easily be replaced, he has never called in sick. On the day Wilson’s assistants interviewed him, he had just had a tooth pulled and was in great pain. Having borrowed money from friends to pay for the extraction, he could not afford any painkillers. In spite of the pain, he went to work that night and washed dishes.17

As Wilson’s example illustrates, the situation among truly disadvantaged minority youth is much worse than that of most American youth. These youths have an even greater difficulty finding jobs. In fact, the adults in their community are likely to be unemployed, working for poverty-level wages, or on welfare. These adolescents “may not know a single adult whose stable employment supports an even modest standard of family life.“18


Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged depicts how urban centers of concentrated poverty developed.19 Those who succeeded in attaining a solid standard of living often moved away from the city to the suburbs, further depriving young people of role models. Such young people have no experience working or living among people with mid-level or different kinds of jobs and their choices are often limited to poorly paying and unrewarding jobs or quick money from drug running or other criminal activities. Often the only role models available in areas of concentrated poverty are gang members or drug dealers, who appear to have what adolescents desperately want, respect and money.

In these neighborhoods, many adult women were adolescent mothers themselves. Their daughters, in turn, may see a child of their own as the only hope for affection and respect, and perhaps even stability. However, the babies quickly become demanding toddlers. Usually the fathers of these children do not marry the mothers or provide family support. Too early childbearing can have disastrous consequences for both mother and child, including dropping out of school and long-term unemployment for the mother and low birth weight and other health problems for the child.

Although the situation of disadvantaged youth is particularly precarious, among youth of any background, frustration over the inability to get a job, to take control of one’s own life, to assume adult responsibilities, or to be valued and needed can contribute to drug and alcohol abuse, unnecessary risk-taking, and violence directed at one self or others.

Those adolescents who are already disconnected from family, school, work, or community may look for support elsewhere. What adults may term “deviant” behavior may be one way for adolescents to increase self-esteem and obtain a sense of belonging to a valued group. For example, a gang member stated that he became involved in a robbery because “I resented that my father was not involved. Now I don’t care but I wouldn’t have gotten involved in a gang if he had a job and if he had a relationship with me. The only adult male in my life is an uncle who retired from working for the city.“20

A serious though not life-threatening aspect of rolelessness among all youth is the lack of civic responsibility. Sixty-seven percent of eighteen-to twenty-year-olds and 62 percent of twenty-one-to twenty-four-year-olds did not vote in the presidential election of 1988, apparently feeling that they had no stake in the future of their country or that voting was not the avenue to express their stake.21 This civic apathy may be an expression of perceived rolelessness among older adolescents—that what they do makes no difference to anyone.


A 1942 study of young men who served in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) showed that their main reason for joining was to help their families (see Table 5).22 However, over 50 percent joined either primarily or to some extent because they were tired of having nothing to do. When given the opportunity to be of use, many welcomed it.

In the 1980s, several different plans for involving adolescents in youth service were proposed, ranging from mandatory national service to optional service programs for credit in schools. Whatever the plan, the goals were essentially similar: to give youth a sense of self-worth and accomplishment; to bring them in contact with adults who could serve as mentors and role models, thus increasing the 2 percent of time spent in contact with unrelated adults;23 to provide service to those in need; and to teach responsibility and behaviors appropriate to holding a job and performing well.

Promoters of mandatory national service also see it as a rite of passage marking and perhaps easing the transition to adulthood. Some think that adolescents’ “insulation from the real business of life produces ‘the more subtle, subjective states such as apathy, self-hatred, boredom, acute feelings of frustration, loneliness, and meaningless-ness,’ ” and that youth service can be used to combat these feelings.24 Others believe that youth service can promote a commitment to others and thus shape the communitarian values of society in the future. By addressing the frustration of youth and providing them with constructive values, youth service can help to combat the risky behaviors that often result from a lack of meaningful contributing roles. Other proposals include monitored work experience; school volunteer service as part of the curriculum, graduation requirements, or extracurricular activities; and job corps and other options for out-of-school and out-of-job youth.25 Voter registration drives with adolescent participation or political activities through organizations such as the League of Women Voters or the Youth Policy Institute may serve to foster civic responsibility.


Another promising possibility is linking adolescents with retired persons. For example, in the Partners Program developed by Joan Schine (bringing adolescents and the elderly together), young adolescents develop new and meaningful relationships with adults outside their immediate family or school.26 The elderly, in turn, are able to reach out to a new and very different population, at a time when their own circle of friends or contacts may be shrinking. Interviews with middle-school students who regularly visited a nursing home revealed that the students aimed to make friends with the elders, whom they viewed as bored and lonely. These adolescents worked hard to be liked by their elderly companions. Simple events such as giving the partner a snack or going with him to his room helped to individualize relationships. The students interviewed believed that Friendship is healing, that it makes both the older person and the youth feel good about themselves.

It seems clear that all youth need to develop strong one-on-one relationships with adults in their communities, schools, and work environments.27 For minority youth in poverty, who are at greatest need and greatest risk, youth-service programs are even more important because they provide an opportunity to succeed outside of school tasks. Although many scattered programs exist, a more intense and systematic commitment is required to provide each young person with at least one human anchor.28 A key to the success of service programs is “examined experience”—the service opportunity is “examined” with the mentor, and the young person learns from reviewing the experience and trying again. Programs that link school and community also serve the purpose of giving the school experience more meaning.

Beyond community service, there is also a need to help non-college-bound youth to secure stable employment at an earlier age. This may be done through school programs, on-the-job training programs, or programs that aid the job search and teach how to work. Robert W. Glover and Ray Marshall discuss this more thoroughly in “Improving the School-to-Work Transition of American Adolescents” in this issue.

For many young people, schools, as they are structured, have proved dysfunctional and do not provide the necessary preparation for the responsibilities that lie beyond graduation. Schools need to be restructured and their curricula improved and made more meaningful by incorporating health education, human biology, community service, marketable technical skills, and career information.

Businesses should be more flexible about hiring high school graduates. More businesses could develop responsible positions and job-training programs for young people, offer reasonable salaries, and allow opportunities for advancement, rather than a job with no opportunities and at minimum wage. From a business view, this is an investment in the quality of the work force.

Procedures for registering to vote need to be simplified and young people recruited to vote, for example by programs to contact youths on their eighteenth birthdays and registration when applying for driver’s licenses, or on election day. This is one aspect of civic responsibility that can mold a sense of personal worth and stimulate social participation.29

The health professions—including but not limited to physicians—have a particular responsibility to be sensitive to early signs of trouble in adolescents and to follow through on appropriate referrals. The participation of health professionals in school-linked centers can have positive effects, especially on mental health and reproductive services. A study of the first two school-linked clinics in high schools in St. Paul, Minnesota, showed that child-bearing among participating female students decreased by more than 50 percent within three years.30

The role of religious institutions in increasing the life chances of adolescents is also important but often given too little attention. In the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, a profile of eighth-graders revealed that 34 percent participated in religious youth groups.31 A number of studies show a correlation between religious belief and/or practice and lower frequency of some high-risk behaviors.32 Religious institutions, of course, have traditionally provided support for youth, but their role can and should be adapted to current circumstances-for example, in reaching out to rootless youth. The black churches in particular can be strong forces to help youth in their communities.

Youth organizations—such as the Scouts, 4-H Clubs, Camp Fire Girls and Boys—sprang up in the first half of the twentieth century to stress skills, character building, and service to others. They were organized to take advantage of the new leisure time of youths who were not working. Now these organizations need to adjust to the changing needs of adolescents, and to increase the commitment of adults. They have the capacity to make dependable connections with many lonely and isolated young people.33


Although there is reason to be concerned about the problems of youth, adolescents must be claimed as assets to society.34 We must change the view that many people hold of all youth as troubled and harmful to the rest of society. We particularly need a social commitment to providing opportunities for meaningful roles for young people who will not have many years of formal education.

Self-esteem from secure loving relationships and success at tasks are important to the development of any individual. Fortunately, the developmental process continues throughout life. The span of years of adolescence is long and offers opportunities for not one but many turning points in looking toward potentially productive later years. How can we redefine roles and tasks for adolescents, particularly those at high risk, so that they are more adaptive?

This redirection—or creation of constructive, rewarding roles for all adolescents, including those at high risk—can include supplying universal prenatal care with simultaneous enriched educational opportunities for pregnant girls; providing alternatives to premature assuming of adult roles with regard to sexual activity and buying power, before appropriate maturational steps have taken place; drawing on the commitment of elders and the innovative ideas of youth—linking of generations, communities, and youth through mentoring; linking of schools to communities so schools become a more desirable and relevant part of all adolescent experience; capitalizing on the growing empathy and affinity for humanitarian causes displayed by youth (for example, in the past several years hundreds of groups of Amnesty International have been formed in high schools); providing social supports, which, with opportunities to enhance self-efficacy, provide buffers for coping in times of stress; and encouraging multidisciplinary research on adolescents of different cultures, ethnic background, socioeconomic status, geographic areas, and gender. Different groups have different vulnerabilities and we cannot generalize from research on middle-class white youth. For all groups except white middle-class youth, so far, we have barely begun to count the casualties; we do not yet understand how they happen or how to prevent them. Rolelessness is a problem, but there is much that we can do to add purpose to the years of adolescence.

There are at least two major reasons for these efforts: making adolescents’ experience as adolescents as rewarding and productive as possible is the right and humane thing to do; and we all depend on them for our future.

This article is revised and updated from a 1988 working paper prepared for the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. This article reflects the views of the authors and not of the Council or the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 3, 1993, p. 472-486
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 143, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:07:01 AM

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