Unemployment: It Does Not Pay To Be Young In This Economy

Last Updated May 27, 2010 4:46 PM EDT

Thursday brought more bad news on the unemployment claims front, a reminder than the economy's true temperature cannot be taken by looking at growth figures or Wall Street. And nothing could be worse -- certainly not a declining Dow -- than the jobs picture for young Americans.

Take a moment and think about your working life and you realize that there are important times and less important times. One of the important times is the beginning, when you're in your late teens or early 20s, and getting your start in the labor force. Getting off on the right foot matters, and a bad start, just like long-term unemployment, can affect your earnings for years.

The Joint Economic Committee, a kind of think tank comprised of members of both chambers of Congress, this week released a report about youth unemployment and the looming "lost generation." No, you're not back in high school reading Hemingway. This is in the here and now.

The high rates of unemployment among young workers are cause for concern, and the effects can last long after the recession has ended. The "scarring effects" of prolonged unemployment can be devastating over a worker's career. Productivity, earnings and well-being can all suffer. In addition, unemployment can lead to a deterioration of skills and make securing future employment more difficult.
All those headlines about college graduates and the employment market are no joke. The 16-24 age group comprises 13 percent of the labor force, but accounts for 26 percent of the unemployed. Workers aged 16 and 17 faced a 29 percent unemployment rate in April. So much for that job at McDonald's or the supermarket.

Reading statistics like these of late, I found myself thinking about an off-the-cuff comment about unemployment written by Brad DeLong, a professor at UC Berkeley, about the recession in the early 1980s, a time that made a strong impression on me (I was quite young) because my own father was unemployed for some time, and underemployed for even more.

The most astonishing and surprising thing I find about Washington DC today is the contrast in mood between DC today and what DC was thinking a generation ago, in 1983, the last time the unemployment rate was kissing 10%. Back then it was a genuine national emergency that unemployment was so high -- real policies like massive monetary ease and the eruption of the Reagan deficits were put in place to reduce unemployment quickly, and everybody whose policies wouldn't have much of an effect on jobs was nevertheless claiming that their projects were the magic unemployment-reducing bullet. Today.... nobody much in DC seems to care. A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America's sellers of labor power? I don't know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.
Astonishing, indeed.


  • Carter Dougherty

    Carter Dougherty, a former economic correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times, is fascinated by the intersection between policy and business, in the United States and abroad. He shared in a Loeb Award, business journalism's most prestigious, while at the NYT. But he still looks back fondly on his days trudging through central Africa, reporting on Congo, Darfur and other rough spots.