Youth Unemployment

Economic opportunity and social mobility have defined America. It is a core value of our nation that where you start in life should not determine how high you climb. But that ideal is at risk of disappearing. Young people in other highly industrialized countries now have a better chance of moving up the economic ladder than children in America. 

Today, the zip codes where people are born too often determine their destiny. In a free society, some inequality is unavoidable. Not everyone will rise to the same level; people simply differ in skills and ambition. But inequality without the chance for mobility is economically inefficient — and unjust. The circumstances of a person’s birth should not condemn that person to an inescapable economic fate. When the American Dream is at risk for some, we all suffer.

That’s why we all have a vested interest in helping teens and young adults – the population most adversely affected by the Great Recession and a sluggish recovery — embark on meaningful educational and career pathways that lead to economic stability and self-sufficiency. Today, young Americans ages 16-24 are experiencing unemployment rates that are at least twice the national average.


This is a national emergency that affects all of us. A weak start in the job market is bad for the economy and social mobility. A six-month bout of unemployment reduces future earnings by $22,000 over the next decade. And young adults who don’t receive some form of post-secondary education are the most vulnerable to economic downturns.

It’s been a lost decade for young Americans in terms of employment. In 2000, 45 percent of teens ages 16-19 were employed. By 2011, just 26 percent of teens were employed. Rates for young adults ages 20-24 also plummeted during this time frame, from 72 percent to 60 percent.

According to a recent analysis about the hidden costs of youth unemployment:

  • Persistent high unemployment among young people adds up to $25 billion a year in uncollected taxes and, to a much smaller degree, increased safety net expenditures.
  • One unemployed 18-24-year-old costs federal and state governments more than $4,100 a year in forgone tax revenue and benefits received.
  • If youth unemployment were reduced to its pre-recession rate, the federal government would recoup $7.8 billion, or $53 per taxpayer, and state and local governments would recoup $1.1 billion.

At the same time, many U.S. employers say that the inability to find qualified workers is their biggest obstacle to growth. Despite the current unemployment crisis, there are millions of U.S. jobs available right now that employers need to fill, but applicants lack the required degree, certificate and skills. Let’s help employers grow and change the fact that, for the first time ever, young adults risk having lower educational attainment rates than their parents. It’s never too late. Even students who’ve struggled throughout childhood and adolescence increase their chances of reaching the middle class by middle age by more than 50% if they earn a postsecondary degree.


Young adults are the key to our global competitiveness.

By 2020, two-thirds of American jobs will require at least an associate’s degree. But we aren’t training our rising generation to meet these workforce demands, especially compared to our international peers. In 2007 alone, only 48% of young adults in the U.S. found jobs within six months of graduating compared to 80% in Germany. In order to stay competitive globally and meet the demands of the current and future American workforce, we must strengthen pathways to school and careers.

Young adults can create more opportunity in our communities.

The success or failure of young adults creates a ripple effect across every aspect of community life. For example, Opportunity Index research reveals the percentage of young adults engaged in school and work is one of the most important influences on a state’s Opportunity Score. If more young adults are on career pathways, the overall community is more likely to achieve economic mobility and security.

Young adults can keep us from paying steep financial and social costs.

Young adults who are not in school or working represent untapped potential for our nation. They cost taxpayers $93 billion annually and $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenues and increased social services. However, once students finish high school and complete some form of postsecondary education, they can be more successful and contribute more to our society. Students who obtain an associate’s degree earn nearly one-third more over the course of their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma – and students with a bachelor’s degree earn three-quarters more.

Today’s young adults are filled with dreams and promise, just like the generations who came before them. Let’s give them the opportunity to reach their full potential. We’ll all reap the benefit.

Our nation has renewed the American Dream many times throughout our history. We can do it again.

America’s young adults can’t be viewed through a single lens. They have unique histories and diverse talents, and some are facing significant challenges to reach their full potential despite their optimism and aspirations. They may be high school dropouts striving to get back on track, teen parents working to support their families, or current and former foster youth. Others have had periods of homelessness or been involved with the juvenile justice system, and some are finding it difficult to access, afford and complete a strong postsecondary education. Because of these differences, young adults must complete high school and have a variety of high-quality options – including one-, two- and four-year degree programs – that fit their ambitions and talents and equip them with comprehensive workplace skills.

Learn more about our call to action, “We Got This: Youth Employment” to make sure all of our young adults have a shot at reaching the American Dream.

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