The Real Reason That Young People Can't Find Jobs

The Wall Street Journal says the problem is that Obama killed entry-level work. In fact, the problem is that too much work only pays an entry-level wage.
More
Reuters

It's fairly amazing to write an article called "Why Young People Can't Find Work" that doesn't include the word recession or the phrase going to college, but the Wall Street Journal's opinion section is nothing if not consistently amazing, in its own way. So no surprise that in an op-ed in this morning's paper, Andrew Puzder, a restaurant executive, uses the question as a shoehorn to slip smoothly into a familiar criticism of Obamacare, which he blames for everything from depressing employment to destroying entry-level jobs.

Rather than pick on Puzder, I'll pick on his shoehorn: Why can't young people find work, really? There are three reasons.

The first reason that young people can't find work is that they're not looking for work, because they're in school.

Puzder notes that the BLS just recorded the lowest percentage of 16- to 19-year-olds working or looking for work since it started counting such things in 1948. But look what else changed since the 1940s: The share of the population with less than a high school education fell from 76 percent to 12 percent, while the share of Americans with a bachelor's degree septupled to 32 percent. The BLS itself says that "the major factor producing this significant [change in labor participation] has been an increase in school attendance at all levels."

The second reason that young people can't find work is that they're young. Young workers today are under-employed at high levels, but they've been under-employed at high levels for decades. Because they're young. Young people have long suffered higher unemployment than the rest of the country, unless they have a college degree. Because they're young. Graduates are moving from unemployment (school) to employment (workforce). Finding a job is always harder than keeping a job.

The third reason that young people can't find work is that they're having the same trouble that other job-seekers are having following the deep recession and slow recovery. One way to measure whether the youth job market is particularly sick is to investigate whether the youth unemployment rate is rising faster than the rate for overall workers. Here's the youth unemployment multiple going back to 1985...

The first thing you might see is that the overall youth unemployment rate (in light blue) hasn't budged from its historical average. There is nothing uniquely wrong with the youth job market. Youth unemployment is exactly as high as you might expect. The second thing you'll see is that there is something uniquely wrong with the job market for young grads who never went to college. Their unemployment rate is clearly elevated—a sign that a college degree is a necessary rung on the ladder to the quality career.

Young people—including college grads—take time to establish themselves in the economy, and they always have. The most important concern today shouldn’t be whether they find work, but what kind of work they find. "It has become more common for underemployed college graduates to find themselves in low-wage jobs” since the 2001 recession, according to a recent New York Fed report. The problem isn't that Obama killed entry level jobs, as Puzder argues. It's that he lacks the power to enrich those entry level jobs.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon About the Toys in Your Cereal Box

The story of an action figure and his reluctant sidekick, who trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Juice Cleanses: The Worst Diet

A doctor tries the ever-popular Master Cleanse. Sort of.

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In