Here’s a fact that should give economists—and maybe President Obama’s political team—heartburn: Two years after the Great Recession officially ended, job prospects for young Americans remain historically grim. More than 17 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds who are looking for work can’t find a job, a rate that is close to a 30-year high. The employment-to-population ratio for that demographic—the percentage of young people who are working—has plunged to 45 percent. That’s the lowest level since the Labor Department began tracking the data in 1948. Taken together, the numbers suggest that the U.S. job market is struggling mightily to bring its next generation of workers into the fold.
This is a dangerous proposition, economically (for the United States as a whole) and politically (for the president).
As The Atlantic’s Don Peck wrote last year, citing a litany of research from Yale University’s Lisa Kahn, college graduates who enter the labor force during a recession make significantly less money—in their first year and over the course of their careers—than grads who walk into an economic boom. Workers stuck in the unemployment line for an extended period risk watching their skills atrophy and face increasing difficulty finding new jobs. That’s particularly true, though, for people waiting and waiting and waiting to land their first job. The longer a whole batch of fledgling workers sits waiting to be hired, the more the economy risks losing young employees with valuable, high-end skills at a time when global competition is increasingly fierce.