89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A 'Lost Generation Of Workers': The Cost Of Youth Unemployment

It makes some sense that young people might work less than their older counterparts. They are figuring out their lives, going in and out of school and making more short-term plans.

But a whopping 5.8 million young people are neither in school nor working. It is "a completely different situation than we've seen in the past," says Elisabeth Jacobs, the senior director for policy and academic programs at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

"It's a big deal. ... That's a whole cohort of Americans who are at the very beginning of their careers and are pretty dispirited," she says.

Youth unemployment remains remarkably high across the country. In some places, the unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds is more than twice the national unemployment rate, which is currently 6.3 percent.

It's a development that experts warn could have ripple effects for decades to come — not only for young people's lifelong earning potential but also for their contributions to the tax base and the strength of the U.S. economy overall.

And many of them have more than just themselves to support.

"This isn't the story of people who can't get a job at the mall. It's about people who are trying to support their families," Jacobs told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. "We're talking about a lot of American parents who are struggling."

One of them is 22-year-old Patty Sanchez of Reno, Nev., who recently had to take several days off from her job at a call center while her young daughter had foot surgery. But there was a mix-up; Sanchez was ruled a "no-show" and fired.

Since then, the high school graduate has sent out dozens of resumes, posted on career websites and gone from store to store asking about work. Meanwhile, she has four children under the age of 5 and was recently evicted from her apartment.

"I feel like it's a hole that I can't seem to get myself out of, even though I'm trying," she says. "And I'm trying to stay positive about it,"

Mark Pingle, an economist at the University of Nevada in Reno, says that a high school education isn't enough these days — even for a place like Reno, which has traditionally had ample work opportunities in the service sector. During the peak of the recession, the unemployment rate for young adults in Nevada shot above 20 percent.

"You need, more so, an education in Nevada than in the past. You need to get skills," he says.

Alexandria Roberts, 23, recently graduated from the University of Nevada but hasn't been able to find full-time work. She plans to join the military soon, unless her employment situation changes.
Will Stone / Reno Public Radio
Reno Public Radio
Alexandria Roberts, 23, recently graduated from the University of Nevada but hasn't been able to find full-time work. She plans to join the military soon, unless her employment situation changes.

But, as Alexandria Roberts is learning, even a college diploma is no guarantee. Roberts, 23, recently graduated from the University of Nevada with a degree in political science and a goal of working in political campaigns. After months of struggling to find a job in her field, she has expanded her search.

"A human resources position, any kind of office management, things like that," she says. "I applied for these jobs, and it's just ... the opportunity is not there," she says. "I have a bachelor's degree, which doesn't get you anywhere. But it's a Catch-22: It doesn't get you anywhere, but everybody thinks that you're overqualified for things."

When Alex Contreras finished high school, he knew he'd need some kind of specialty. He moved away from home and enrolled in Job Corps, a one- to two-year federal program for economically disadvantaged youth. There, he received training as a security guard, which he hoped would help him find stable employment while working toward his long-term goal of becoming a police officer.

But, so far, lacking on-the-job experience, the 20-year-old has only been able to find part-time work. He suspects that older people, with more experience, are getting the kind of entry-level positions he is aiming for.

"You maybe have all those certifications, but what about the other person? He maybe has the same certifications, but he has probably done it more than I have," Contreras says.

But, according to Jacobs, even taking that part-time job might be better than holding out for full-time.

"If you've had a long unemployment spell, even if it's in the beginning of your career, employers don't like that. So, to start your career with that black mark on your record, it follows you for a very long time, for a variety of reasons," she says.

Throughout the labor market, she says, experts are seeing what she calls a "cruel game of musical chairs," in which people with more education or experience aren't able to get jobs that they want and are instead going after positions that might require fewer skills or less experience.

"When the music stops, you have all of the college grads have taken the Starbucks jobs, and so if you're a less educated person who, in the past, a job like that might have been kind of your go-to first job — the chairs just aren't available to them," Jacobs says.

And the difference has long-term impact, affecting earnings for about 20 years, according to Jacobs.

"You kind of hop on a career ladder with that first job, so that impacts your wage trajectory, because, you know, you start off on a lower rung," she says.

"We risk really having this lost generation of workers," Jacobs says. "And what that means in terms of the economy's ability to innovate and compete, when you've kind of wasted the talents of some substantial portion of a generation, is really, it's alarming."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Will Stone
Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
NPR Staff