A year after finishing college, Alison Foster, 23, is living with her parents and scraping by on part-time, temporary project work from an employer she interned with earlier this year.
“I didn’t anticipate that a year out I would be barely making any money at all,” said Foster, from Arlington, Virginia. Along with a degree in environmental sciences from the University of Vermont, her resume includes prestigious internships with a member of Congress and the National Park Service’s Conservation Study Institute, and yet no job offers have come.
In the hard economic times since 2008, when Foster voted for President Barack Obama’s message of hope, America’s young voters have been battered. They’ve disproportionately sustained job losses, wage declines and detours on their career paths.
For many, even the normal rites of passage to adulthood have been disrupted, as they delay such life steps as leaving home, getting married and having children.
“These people are stuck,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Their life is on hold in many different ways.”
One in six 16- to 24-year-olds last year was idle, neither working nor attending school even for just an hour a week, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economics professor. Among 20- to 24-year-old men, almost one in five was idle last year.
As of May, 41 percent of the nation’s net decline in full-time jobs from four years earlier was among under-25-year-olds, an age group that represents just 14 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Under-35-year-olds account for 65 percent of the decline in full-time employment, though they comprise only 35 percent of the labor force.
Even among young people who have full-time work, real wages have dropped, while older workers’ pay has kept even or slightly improved. Median weekly earnings after inflation fell 6 percent among 18- to 24-year-olds in full-time jobs from 2007 to 2011, according to an analysis of Labor Department data by the Pew Research Center in Washington.
“You’ve got a lot of very well-educated people and they’re stepping down many, many levels,” said Alex Rebeiz, 44, manager at the Arlington store for Eastern Mountain Sports, an outdoor gear retailer.
Applicants for part-time sales jobs have surged among recent college graduates, even some with master’s degrees, he said. Sales have risen more than 10 percent compared with a year ago, an improvement he largely attributes to the rising caliber of his staff.
“The quality of our customer experience in the store has gone way up,” he said.
Disillusionment is lowering the generation’s enthusiasm for Obama. Young adults who experience economic hardship and watch Washington’s gridlock are turning cynical toward politics, concluding that voting “is not a valuable use of their time,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, which regularly surveys youth opinion.
The portion of 18- to 24-year-olds who say they will definitely vote dropped to 47 percent this year from 64 percent in 2008, according to polls conducted by the Institute of Politics during March and April of each election year.
Leading Margin Shrinks
Support for Obama also has declined, with the president besting Republican Mitt Romney 41 percent to 29 percent in the age group compared with 53 percent to 32 percent against Republican John McCain in 2008, according to the poll.
Sixty-six percent of voters under 30 cast ballots for Obama in the last election, the highest share for a presidential candidate from that age group going back to the start of modern exit polls in 1980. Turnout in the age group was the highest in 16 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That enthusiasm altered the electoral map. Support from the young supplied Obama’s 2008 victory margin in Indiana and North Carolina, both of which hadn’t voted for a Democratic president for decades. Republican Mitt Romney has repeatedly reminded young voters that Obama has meant hard times.
“Young people have been hit disproportionately hard by the Obama economy, and they understand that President Obama has not lived up to his promises or made things better,” said Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman.
Clo Ewing, an Obama spokeswoman, said the president has made young Americans “a priority and has taken action important to their generation,” including ending the Iraq war and extending health-care coverage.
“We are confident that his vision for the future -- a country where everyone gets a fair shake with a stronger middle class -- stands in stark contrast with Republicans who believe we can cut our way to prosperity,” she said.
Labor Department data show the jobless rate among under-25-year-olds has fallen over the past three years, declining from 15 percent in May 2009 to 12.9 percent last month and dropping among those in the age group with college degrees from 8.6 percent in May 2009 to 6.8 percent last month.
Unemployment figures don’t full capture all those without jobs because discouraged workers no longer seeking employment aren’t counted. Also, people who delay entry into the workforce by staying in school aren’t counted.
Raja Duggal, a 26-year-old from San Francisco who voted for Obama last time, has since had to defer his own dreams. Three years after graduating from San Francisco State University with a psychology degree, his aspiration to counsel children remains unrealized.
“I really wanted to help kids out. I understand where kids from broken families come from because I’ve been there,” said Duggal, who said his mother died when he was 8 years old and his father turned to alcohol. “I pushed through with everything I had to get through college.”
Now, he works part-time at an antiques store and as an administrative assistant in an office. He’s grown “impatient” and has a “love-hate relationship” with Obama, though he said he will still probably vote for him again.
Foster, in Virginia, said she will likely back Obama again, as well. “I do have questions,” she said. “But I’m pretty liberal. I’m not going to vote for Mitt Romney.”
Appeal to Young
Republican strategist Karl Rove has started a political action committee under the name Crossroads Generation to appeal to young voters based on their economic travails.
Obama’s been making regular stops at college campuses, promoting a bill to prevent an increase in student loan interest rates and highlighting a provision in the health-care law that permits children to stay on family insurance policies until age 26.
Still, until the economy improves, prospects for younger workers will remain tough.
“The worse the labor market, the less employers are willing to take chances on young workers, and the more they are competing with other people who have lost their jobs,” Katz said.
Compounding the difficulty, turnover in the workplace is sluggish. Though the layoff rate has dropped to pre-recession levels, few workers have left their jobs the past three years and companies are slow to make new hires. Older workers have postponed retirement after confronting depleted 401(k) saving balances and declines in home equity. The number of 70- to 74-year-olds in full-time jobs has swelled by almost a third since May 2008.
The repercussions reach beyond the pocketbook. Thirty-one percent of young adults said they have postponed marriage or having a child during the downturn, according to a Pew Research Center Survey of adults between the ages of 18 and 34 conducted in December 2011.
The U.S. birth rate declined more than 11 percent from 2007 to 2011 and the marriage rate dropped 6.8 percent from 2007 to 2010, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The portion of men 25 to 34 years old living with their parents also has grown from 14.3 percent in 2006, the year before the recession started, to 18.6 percent in 2011, according to the U.S. Census. Among women in the age group, 9.7 percent live with their parents, up from 8.8 percent in 2006.
“The first five years in a worker’s career are often a very big part of getting set up in the labor market, finding what you’re good at and getting wage growth,” Katz said. “Now that we’ve essentially had five terrible years, a whole cohort of young people has missed out on those early opportunities.”
Instead, college graduates often are stuck in jobs off the career track, baristas and bartenders with degrees.
The portion of working 20- to 24-year-old college graduates in jobs that don’t require a higher education surged from 34.2 percent in 2007 to 39.1 percent in 2010 and among 25- to 29-year-old graduates the portion rose from 26.1 percent to 29.9 percent, according to an analysis by Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg, researchers at the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“Teen-agers coming out of high school really get pushed out of the job market,” he said.
College graduates who take jobs that might have gone to high-school grads confront rising levels of student loans to pay off.
Average student loan debt at graduation was $25,250 in 2010, up 11 percent from two years earlier, according to the Project on Student Debt, an advocacy group based in Oakland, California. Those students who choose to avoid the depressed job market by continuing in graduate school emerge with even higher levels of debt.
The cost of the Great Recession to their livelihoods is likely to continue for decades to come.
College students who graduated during the early 1980s economic downturn suffered wage losses of more than $100,000 during the next 15 years compared to those who came into the job market later in the decade, according to research by Yale School of Management economist Lisa Kahn.
“The group we’re seeing here is going to be hit harder,” said Heidi Shierholz, a market economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. “This recession is deeper and longer.”