The Impact of the Pandemic on Young People’s Employment and Economic Security

Young people’s employment rate has been trending down over the past several decades. Factors include increasing school attendance, declining federal support for summer jobs, and the Great Recession. In Spring 2001, about 42 percent of 16 to 19-year-olds and 71 percent of 20 to 24-year-olds were employed. By Spring 2011, in the wake of the Great Recession, only about 24 percent of 16 to 19-year-olds and 60 percent of 20 to 24-year-olds were employed. Youth employment had recovered somewhat in the last few years, but in early 2020 remained far below its 2001 level.

Then the pandemic hit. In just the first two months of the current crisis, youth employment (ages 16 to 24) has fallen at twice the rate of overall employment. The decline for 18 to 19-year-old women appears to be higher than any other demographic group, roughly one out of every two young women in this age range who were working in February were not working in April.  (The sample size of relatively small groups in the monthly Current Population Survey means the real change may be lower or higher than this, but there are good reasons to think that young women have seen real employment losses of this magnitude).

Young people are generally much safer not working right now, as few had jobs that allowed them to work from home. Not working also means lost income and greater economic insecurity, particularly for working-class teens and young adults. Many teens and young adults are also taking on new (or greater) caregiving responsibilities, including caring for younger siblings no longer in school or other elder or child care. Given that young workers are disproportionately employed in sectors that have been hardest hit by the pandemic like retail and food services,  there is little reason to think youth employment will recover quickly from the current shock. 

During the Great Recession, postsecondary education, youth training programs, expanded summer jobs programs, and infrastructure funding helped reduce the impact of high youth unemployment. For example, the 2009 Recovery Act included $1.5 billion in additional funding for the Department of Labor’s Youth Job Training and Employment Programs, on top of the regular annual program funding.

By contrast, there has been little or no youth-specific federal policy response during the current crisis. The legislative responses to date, particularly the CARES Act, have provided important benefits for workers who have lost jobs, including expanded unemployment insurance and new, temporary paid leave and sick pay. However, the extent to which young workers have been able to access these benefits is not clear. 

Prior to the pandemic, young unemployed workers were much less likely to apply for and receive Unemployment Insurance (UI) than older workers. In 2018, only 7 percent of unemployed young people (ages 16 to 24) had applied for UI since their last job, while older unemployed workers were roughly five times as likely to have applied for UI. There were about 1 million unemployed young people (who had worked in the past 12 months) each month in 2018, but only about 34,000 received UI each month.

Moreover, some pandemic-related benefits, like the near-universal one-time cash payment, have excluded substantial numbers of teens and young adults altogether. The one-time cash payment provided $1,200 to most adults and $500 to most children, but excluded people over age 16 who were claimed as dependents by their parents. 

Exclusions like these, and the overall lack of focus on teens and young adults, is particularly troublesome given how little the US welfare state does to assist them. Recent research has documented that the spike in poverty during the transition to adulthood (ages 17 to 24) is higher today than in the earlier decades. 

Many jobs lost during the pandemic, particularly in sectors like retail and food services, will not come back. For young people seeking to enter the labor market, there will be even fewer options going forward. The state of emergency and social distancing requirements make policy and programmatic responses that rely on school and summer jobs more difficult. Some cities, including New York City, have already announced cuts to their summer jobs programs for young people. While postsecondary education and student financial assistance effectively played a safety net role for many young people during the Great Recession, this may be a less viable route today given how the pandemic may impact the finances of   postsecondary institutions.

Going forward, we need a pandemic recovery plan that includes young people. Absent that, they will be harmed in lasting and deeply unfair ways when it comes to their future employment, earnings, education, and health.

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