Media Highlights

The full story on job numbers and young American workers

by Jennifer Jordan   •  

With the release last week of the latest job numbers came some welcome news. For the first time since July 2008 –shortly before the official start of the Great Recession – the U.S. unemployment rate had fallen to 5.8 percent in October 2014. 

There was more good news. The Labor Department estimated that employers added 214,000 more jobs in October, the ninth consecutive month that job growth exceeded 200,000. 

So why don’t ordinary Americans – particularly teens and young adults — feel like the economy is really doing better?

Well, for one thing, the unemployment rate for youth remains unacceptably high – 18.6 percent for teens ages 16 to 19 and 10.5 percent for young adults ages 20 to 24. When these two groups are combined, the overall youth unemployment rate is nearly 14 percent – more than twice the national average.

And most Americans who are lucky enough to have jobs haven’t experienced wage growth, so the economic recovery hasn’t translated into higher paychecks.

Equally important, the encouraging employment numbers mask profound problems in the job market. These include three million Americans who have joined the ranks of the long-term unemployed, people who have actively looked for work for at least 18 months, and are still looking, without success. The official numbers also obscure the millions who are working part-time but really want and need to be working full-time, and millions more who have simply given up and are not reflected in the official unemployment rate.

Young Americans in particular face big obstacles. For those armed with a college education – once considered a fast track to the American middle class – another big issue is underemployment. 

According to a 2013 report, nearly half of recent college graduates – some 44 percent – reported they were working in jobs that did not require bachelor degrees and were barely scraping by working low-wage jobs. Chances are good that the barista who handed you your latte this morning is a college graduate. 

The lackluster career prospects of recent college graduates has sparked a surge of soul searching among academics, economists, students and families about whether the steep price of a four-year degree is worth it anymore – even as the wage gap between Americans with college degrees and those without grows wider.

Part of the answer may be encouraging more students to get postsecondary education in so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) that support growing industries and tend to pay well. A recent report by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce found that 61 percent of two million jobs posted online were for white-collar professional and managerial jobs and STEM fields.

Another challenge facing American youth is the nation’s “quit” rate – a sign of a healthy labor force. In the years immediately preceding the Great Recession, close to  2.5 percent of workers left their jobs each year, believing that their talents and the economy would help them find new ones. But in 2014, the rate hovers around 1.8 percent, meaning there is less churn in the job market – and fewer openings for youth to step into. 

Yes, the country has technically emerged from the Great Recession, and yes, a bachelor’s degree can still help many young Americans get good jobs. But the harsh toll of a weakened economy and stagnant wage growth means these positive factors aren’t enough to ensure that all of our teens and young adults receive the supports they need to embark on meaningful education and career pathways that lead to economic self-sufficiency and stability.

That goal will take all of us – public, private and nonprofit sectors. Moving forward means we must dig beneath the official employment numbers and reveal just how challenging the job market is for the rising generation. Only then, armed with the facts, can we work together to find solutions and help our youth reach for their American Dream.




Jennifer Jordan

Jennifer D. Jordan is Opportunity Nation’s Senior Writer. She shares the campaign’s mission and accomplishments and those of its coalition with diverse audiences, seeking to heighten awareness about expanding economic mobility to more Americans. Read Jennifer's bio.

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