Identity Exploration or Labor Market Reaction: Social Class Differences in College Student Participation in Peace Corps, Teach for America, and Other Service Programs

  • Alanna Gillis


Service programs and other short-term work experiences have become much more common for young adults after college graduation. Emerging adulthood has become a widespread explanation for this phenomenon, namely that a new life stage has arisen between adolescence and young adulthood in which emerging adults prioritize identity exploration. However, using in-depth interviews with juniors and seniors at an elite university, I find that this explanation overlooks two critical social constraints that young adults face during this time period that are shaped by their social class: work values and labor market conditions. Rather than all students seeking to participate in service programs in order to engage in identity exploration, I find four orientations towards service programs, shaped by social class background, current sense of financial stability, and work values: 1) participating as a backup plan to boost résumés, 2) seeking meaningful short-term work during an unsettled stage of life, 3) seeking opportunities to enact identity projects around helping others, and 4) using the programs to facilitate long-term career entry. Thus, I argue that the rise of short-term work experiences after college graduation should not be viewed as young adults engaging in a distinct life course phase prior to entry into full adulthood. Instead, the rise of these programs should be seen as a response to students’ social class backgrounds and the various labor market constraints each group faces.


Service programs Social class Transition to adulthood Emerging adulthood Work values 



I would like to thank the numerous people and groups who read drafts of this paper and gave helpful suggestions for improvement: Renee Ryberg, Laura Krull, Andrew Perrin, Sherryl Kleinman, Laura Lopez-Sanders, UNC’s Culture and Politics Workshop, and UNC’s Inequality Workshop. Drafts of this paper were presented at the annual meetings of American Sociological Association and Southern Sociological Society. I sincerely appreciate the helpful comments and recommendations of the reviewers and the editor to further strengthen the paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Chapel HillUSA

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