Youth employment challenges reflect and widen the gap between rich and poor

Recession dims employment prospects most severely for disadvantaged youth

The path from adolescence to professional success has become more challenging, especially for disadvantaged populations. The Great Recession in 2009 dimmed employment prospects for the millennial generation around the world, leaving many unemployed or underemployed. Teens and young adults whose formal education ended with a high school diploma or less have suffered the most.

Professor of sociology Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson studies teenage and young adult employment in the U.S. In two recent studies she examined employment trends and how work experiences during the recession affected teens’ and young adults’ economic and career outlooks in the long run.

While in high school, recession-era teens had fewer job opportunities. Jobs during high school are critical for students who will not proceed to college. They depend on the professional and technical skills they learn in these early jobs to find full-time employment after graduation. College-bound youth also learn from teenage jobs, particularly how to balance work and school. That skill has become more important as growing proportions of college students work to help support themselves and pay for school.

Dr. Johnson’s findings show that both before and during the recession, youth from disadvantaged backgrounds were less able to find work than their more privileged peers.

Also expanding the rift between haves and have-nots is a current parenting trend among privileged families that Dr. Johnson studies. Many parents who have the means to pay their kids’ college tuition now extend that support to cover post-college costs, such as rent and insurance. This frees up their kids to work part time, take unpaid internships, and seize other opportunities that are not options for young people who must support themselves financially.

Dr. Johnson’s discoveries set the stage for employers, policymakers, and non-profit organizations to design solutions that restore opportunity to disadvantaged youth.