Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Paul Attewell

Committee Members

Janet Gornick

Richard Alba

Mary Clare Lennon

Subject Categories

Educational Sociology | Inequality and Stratification


school-to-work transition, life course transitions, welfare state, labor market entry, precarious work, recessions


The school-to-work transition is traditionally perceived as a one-time event; moving from education to one’s first job. In response to the increased complexity within today’s relationship between education and work, the research in this dissertation takes a different approach to the study of inequality and stratification. It considers the life phase between these two institutions as a trajectory – a pathway of several years wherein school careers and work careers overlap and interact.

Given the longitudinal approach, this study starts with a comparison of patterns of school-to-work trajectories in four distinct welfare state regimes: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Sweden. By aligning the individual pathways of individuals between age 16 (enrolled in high school) and age 25, social sequence analysis enabled us to reveal sharp differences in school leaving pace, school enrollment, and instability of early work careers. The analyses suggest that the variation in selection and sorting within youth careers can be largely explained by indicators of the different welfare state regimes. Based on comparisons of younger and older birth cohorts there is evidence supporting convergence theory of welfare states – early careers liberal states are becoming less volatile, while those in social-democratic states are becoming more insecure.

In addition to these structural variation within the school-to-work pathway, this study reveals how and when the state of the macro-economy affects school leaving and school reentry behavior of different groups. In contrast to hypotheses drawn from human capital theory, high school students in the United States are more likely to leave the educational system in times of economic downturn. This is called a ‘discouraged student effect.’ Furthermore, among those who have made a first transition to the labor market, lower-educated school leavers in the United States become less likely to return to the educational system under recessionary macro conditions. This US-specific finding suggests an ‘acquired risk aversion’ in response to economic downturn, thereby further widening inequality of labor market chances between lower- and higher-educated individuals. In contrast, British, Swedish, and German youths are more likely to spend more time in full-time education in response to a recession. This is called a ‘human capital catch-up’ response.

Once youths have entered the labor market, the social sequence analyses reveal the consequences of continued exposure to precarious positions, such as temporary work, doubling-up jobs, and alternating between (part-time) employment and unemployment. Young people who become stuck in such careers experience the long-term ‘scars’ of both unfavorable macro-economic conditions and lower-paid and insecure employment. Exposure to such ‘precarious early careers’ can be linked to substantial earnings disadvantages several years after the labor market entry.