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The Persistent Problem of Youth Unemployment

May 4, 2012

Youth unemployment is a big problem in Europe; in Spain, more than half of the under-25 set lack jobs. But it's also a problem here in the United State - one that is often overlooked in the hoopla following each month's employment report.

Nearly one-quarter of American teenagers were unemployed in April, the Labor Department reported today. Unemployment among 16-19 year olds is right back where it was last April -- 24.9 percent -- after falling to 23.1 percent in November. That's mighty high, particularly when you look at historical data for the group.

Unemployment among teens declined slightly in the years leading up to the recession, hitting a low of 14.6 in December 2006 before spiking to 27.0 percent in October 2010. Why? Well, the recession brought more competition for all jobs, including low-skill, low-paying ones adults may traditionally have had less interest in, and technology has replaced some of the functions of hourly workers, such as checking out groceries, The Christian Science Monitor explains in a recent article.

Some research suggests not working as a teen could have lasting consequences. The Employment Policies Institute, a D.C.-based nonprofit research organization, points to research from Thomas Mroz of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Timothy Savage of Welch Consulting Economist that says unemployment even 10 years in someone's past can continue to impact his or her earnings. "Those experiencing unemployment at an early age have years of lower earnings and an increased likelihood of unemployment ahead of them. Policies that may cause job loss can inadvertently lead to decreased wages, increased chances of unemployment and longer future unemployment spells for the most vulnerable," EPI writes. An additional study from Northeastern University finds that teens - particularly economically disadvantaged teens - without paid employment are more likely to drop out of high school and become involved with the criminal justice system.  

It's not necessarily bad for teens to spend their summers without work. EPI's Michael Saltsman told NPR this month that summer school, college prep, and similar activities are fine alternatives. But, he added, "If a teen does want to work and if they are looking for an opportunity, I think we should be providing that for them, because not everyone's going to have the opportunity to go to summer school. Not everyone's going to have the opportunity to do college prep. And so I think, as opposed to sitting on the couch for the summer, it's better for them to be out gaining some sort of experience."

So keep an eye on this number as the summer hiring season kicks off.


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