The Horrible Youth Labor Market

One of my pet peeves about the coverage surrounding the plight of young people in America is that it focuses heavily, and at times exclusively, on how well recent college graduates are doing. Why people focus on this is a mystery to me. I suspect it is because the chattering classes are almost all college graduates, as are their friends. To them, being a recent college graduate is simply what it means to be a young person in the labor market.

The focus on college graduates is pernicious for a couple of reasons. First, most young people are not college graduates. So on a purely descriptive level, focusing on graduates fails to capture what the reality of being a young person looking for work actually looks like. Second, college graduates are considerably better off than their non-degreed peers. As bad as being a recent college graduate might be, being in the same position without a degree is so much worse. The primary focus on young college graduates skews our understanding of the plight of young people and dramatically understates the true scale of job market misery for youths.

To my delight, Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut released a new Demos report yesterday about the job crisis afflicting young Americans, with a specific emphasis on the majority of youth who have no college degree. And those numbers are brutal. People between the ages of 18-24 without a high school degree face an unemployment rate of 27.4% and an underemployment rate of 41.7%. Those in the same age group with only high school degrees face an unemployment rate of 19.7% and an underemployment rate of 34.6%.

In the 25-34 age group, the numbers are somewhat better, but still bad. Those between the ages of 25-34 without a high school degree have an unemployment rate of 15.4% and an underemployment rate of 29.2%. Those with only high school degrees have an unemployment rate of 11.2% and an underemployment rate of 19.9%. In short, it's terrible to be young in this job market, and really terrible to be in it without a degree.

These job problems heavily fall upon Black and Hispanic youth as well. Black youths between the ages of 18-24 and 24-35 face unemployment rates of 25.4% and 14.8% respectively, while Hispanic youths between the ages of 18-24 and 24-35 face unemployment rates of 16.3% and 9.2% respectively. These statistics are made worse when you consider the number of incarcerated youth of color, which are not counted in the BLS data used for this report.

According to the 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics data, 1.5% of Black male youth aged 18-19 are incarcerated, 4.7% aged 20-24 are incarcerated, 6.8% aged 25-29 are incarcerated, and 7.5% aged 30-34 are incarcerated. Meanwhile, 0.6% of Hispanic male youth aged 18-19 are incarcerated, 1.9% aged 20-24 are incarcerated, 2.7% aged 25-29 are incarcerated, and 2.8% aged 30-34 are incarcerated. So youth of color face a double scourge of a bad labor market and extraordinarily high rates of incarceration, which combine to devastate their communities.

If we are going to have a discussion about the burdens we put on our young people in America, this is what we need to be talking about. Things like the Ruetschlin-Draut report that focus on the most vulnerable, burdened, and miserable youths should be at the center of this debate. Sadly, it is an anomaly in this area of advocacy. Instead, we are currently treated to article after article about a specific minority of youth—college students and recent graduates—who also happen to be the most privileged.

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