SUMMER is the traditional time when teenagers and young adults
find temporary work or embark on a career.
But with the season's start just weeks away, the job outlook is
bleak for American youth. Their prospects of finding gainful
employment during the next few months, much less over the longer
term, are worse today than at the beginning of the recession three
Government statistics reveal that more than 1 in 3 teenagers is
unemployed, has given up the job search or is underemployed -
working part-time despite efforts to secure a full-time position.
And while the nation's "official unemployment rate" (defined as
those who have no work at all, and are actively seeking work and
fail to find it) is a nagging 7 percent, it is three times worse
among 16- to 19-year-olds. For young people ages 20 to 24, the rate
is 50 percent higher than the national average.
Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who has conducted extensive
research on the subject, draws strong links between low wages, lack
of work, hopelessness, and crime. "We can't continue over a long
period with a substantial portion of our youth not making it," he
The problem is vexing to Mr. Freeman and other labor economists
as well as to advocates and politicians who see its scope becoming
larger and more complex. They warn of high social and economic
costs related to an increasing number of young Americans out of
Freeman is concerned about the ongoing trend in which jobs are
tough to find, and the pay is generally poor. "This is the worst
year for college graduates, but less-educated youth are taking a
much tougher beating."
Drag on economic growth
For the latter group, he says, "it's a disaster out there," and
adds that this is one of the factors that could be a drag on United
States economic growth over the long term. "People get their skills
when they are young. If they don't get on a good track early, they
may recover some gains later on, but it's still a big negative."
Today's youth face the same challenges present during the Great
Depression, he says. "Back then, people entering the job market
never caught up - they were years behind the normal rate of
By contrast, Freeman says, those who entered the work force in
the middle of World War II saw "their lifetime trajectory of
earnings go up fast."
Clearly such opportunity has faded. "The labor force
participation rate for young people is very low," says Janet
Norwood, former commissioner of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics
(BLS), who is now studying the problem as a senior fellow at the
Urban Institute. "That's very worrisome," she says, "It's a real
According to BLS data, three times as many white American youths
are out of work than are minority youths, but as a percentage of
population, official unemployment among American black teens is
approaching a staggering 50 percent. …