For Job-Hunting Teenagers, the Market Is Brutal

If you think the U.S. job market is snapping back, you’re probably not a teenager hunting for work. A report released today (PDF) uses new statistics and analysis to call attention to an employment decline that’s so big it would be considered a national emergency if it affected people older than age 19.

The study’s lead author, Andrew Sum, the head of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, brings a reformer’s zeal to the topic. In 2000, he points out, 45 percent of teens (aged 16 to 19) were employed. By 2011, the last year covered by the study, that ratio had plummeted to 26 percent.

“If the employment rate went down 20 percentage points for adults, what would you call it?” he asked me. “For teenagers, it’s worse than the Great Depression. The question is, why don’t we care?”

It’s not as if things are getting better, either. Last month the employment-to-population ratio for teens was stuck at 25.8 percent—significantly lower than in the recession years of 2008 and 2009.

The 28-page, chart-filled, multiauthor study, The Plummeting Labor Market Fortunes of Teens and Young Adults, was prepared with the help of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. It focuses on the prospects for teens and young adults aged 20 to 24—the second-worst-performing group in the labor force–in the biggest 100 metro areas. It finds that staying in school accounts for only a small part of the drop in the teen and young adult employment-to-population ratio. The report also documents a “Great Age Twist”: The employment rate actually rose for workers 55 and older between 2000 and 2011. By 2011, 65- to 74-year-old senior citizens were as likely to have jobs as 16- to 19-year-old youngsters.

Unemployment is most severe among low-income teens—those who need jobs the most. Says the report: “So-called ‘disconnected youth’ or ‘opportunity youth’ are missing key education and employment experiences and are at increased risk for a host of negative outcomes: long spells of unemployment, poverty, criminal behavior, substance abuse, and incarceration.”

To Sum, youth joblessness is planting the seeds for bigger problems in the years ahead. He says history shows that people who can’t get jobs when they’re teenagers are less likely to find work when they’re older. “You could say you had a bad year, you’ll be OK next year,” Sum says. “That’s not the way the world works.”

The report offers several solutions, among them: Apprenticeships that give high school and college students a taste of work; classes that teach young people the skills employers are demanding; “on-ramps” that smooth the transition from school to work; subsidized jobs programs; and an expanded earned-income tax credit “specifically targeting younger workers without children.”

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