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Coming of Age in the Down Economy

Pew finds young Americans are underemployed but optimistic
  • February 17 2012

It’s no secret that the recession has hit young adults particularly hard. Across America, employment levels are at their lowest levels ever for young adults, and this is having an impact both on their short-term outlook and their long-term plans.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted at the end of 2011, combined with analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, looks at how young adults are dealing with today’s economic realities. It’s not a rosy picture.

Since 2010, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 currently employed (54 percent) has been at its lowest point since the government began collecting these data in 1948. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults—roughly 15 percentage points—is at its widest.

In the Pew survey, large majorities of the public say it’s harder for young adults to reach many of the basic financial goals their parents may have taken for granted. More than eight-in-ten (82 percent) say finding a job is harder for young adults today than it was for their parents’ generation. And at least seven-in-ten say it’s harder now to save for the future (75 percent), pay for college (71 percent) or buy a home (69 percent).

According to Pew, many adults in their late 20s and early 30s have also felt the impact of the weak economy. Among all 18- to 34-year-olds, half (49 percent) say they have taken a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills, with 24 percent saying they have taken an unpaid job to gain work experience. And 35 percent say that, as a result of the poor economy, they have gone back to school.

There has also been an impact on their personal lives. Adulthood begins later than it used to, notes Pew. In a 1993 Newsweek poll, 80 percent of parents with young children said children should be financially independent from their parents by the age of 22. Today, only 67 percent of parents hold that view. Three-in-ten (31 percent) of today’s parents say children shouldn’t have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later.

Yet the bad times haven’t dampened young adults’ optimism. Among those ages 18 to 34, 88 percent say they either have or earn enough money now or expect they will in the future. Only 9 percent say they don’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want. Adults ages 35 and older are much less optimistic—28 percent say they don’t anticipate making enough money in the future. While young people are less likely now than they were before the recession to say they currently have enough income, their level of optimism is undiminished from where it was in 2004.

In addition, young workers feel more vulnerable than they used to. In a 1998 survey, 65 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds working full time or part time said they were extremely or very confident that they could find another job if they lost or left their current job. The share of highly confident fell dramatically to 25 percent in 2009. It has rebounded somewhat since then (to 43 percent in the current survey) but is still nowhere near the 1998 level, Pew notes.

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