Young people struggling to find work

Monday, October 10th, 2011 

Young people are more likely to be unemployed and underemployed during this continuing economic downturn, especially if they drop out of high school.

Those in the 16- to 24-year-old range who haven’t completed high school have historically suffered more than the better educated. A long-term review of government data shows that people of color are even more vulnerable, as seen in the accompanying charts.

“Teens and young people are having a harder time. A much larger proportion of young people are really struggling,” said economist James Borbely at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which released figures Friday showing that the teen unemployment rate was 24.6 percent for September. 

Casey Mulligan, an economist at the University of Chicago who writes an economy blog for The New York Times, analyzed recent Census Bureau data and found that the average 16-year-old in 2010 worked 40 percent fewer hours than the average 16-year-old did in 2007. He wrote that "in percentage terms, work hours fell the most for teenagers, reflecting the high teenage unemployment rate. After the teenagers, work hours fell the most for the age groups 20 to 29. Work-hours losses for groups in their 30s and 40s ranged 5 to 11 percent. Work hours also fell for age groups 50 to 59, but typically less in percentage terms than for the age groups aged less than 50."

In addition to struggling to find work, young people say they are less hopeful about future work: Fewer than half in a recent Gallup Student Poll say they are confident about finding a good job after graduation.

And the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which tracks U.S. citizens through daily phone interviews, reports that those with a high school education or less are the most likely to be unemployed, while those with more than a high school education are the least likely. 

Gallup studies also reveal that “negative daily experiences for the employed and unemployed differ by age, with the 18- to 29-year-old age group appearing to be hardest hit.” Their surveys show that the number of people who have physical pain doubles among that age group if they have been unemployed more than six months compared with those unemployed for less time.  

The consequences of youth unemployment or under-employment can last for decades. As Kathryn Ann Edwards and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez of the Economic Policy Institute noted in a 2010 paper (pdf), "young workers have less freedom to wait out a downturn and so they frequently take whatever job is available, even if it pays less than a job that matches their skill level." That means young people, taking jobs that don't match their skills, lose key years of building their human capital, write Edwards and Hertel-Fernandez. That, in turn, translates to "a permanent effect of lost work experience on wages," they write. Even when the youth unemployment rate improves, the young people who enter the job market in these difficult years will feel them in their wallets for the long term.  


High school graduation still a must

Employment is more likely for young people who have at least a high school education than for those who have dropped out of school.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Graphics by Melanie Taube, Investigative Reporting Workshop


Unemployment high for young people

More than 50 percent of young people were unemployed at the height of the recession.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Graphics by Melanie Taube, Investigative Reporting Workshop


Minorities hard hit

Black young people have high rates of unemployment, especially those who did not complete high school, though those rates have come down since 2009.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Graphics by Melanie Taube, Investigative Reporting Workshop

What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

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Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.