Nearly all young adults (97 percent) have held a job between leaving high school and age 22. For some youth, employment after high school is a transitional experience, in support of plans for (or concurrent with) post-secondary education. For other young people, employment marks their entry into the adult workforce, and the beginning of a difficult path toward economic self-sufficiency. In either case, this period is typically marked by multiple jobs of relatively short duration. In one recent cohort of youth (those born from 1980 to 1984), the average number of jobs held between ages 18 and 22 was 4.4, and the majority of jobs lasted one year or less. High school dropouts were less likely to have ever held a job than were youth with more education, and the jobs held by dropouts were more likely to end in one year or less.
Employment can provide valuable experience for youth. It teaches responsibility, assists with developing organizational and time management skills, and can help youth save money for post-secondary education. Jobs can also help youth form good work habits, gain valuable work experience, and become financially independent. High school “school-to-career” programs with a work experience component can increase the likelihood of students’ enrolling in college after graduation. Teen employment is linked to greater attachment to the labor market in the adult years, and to increased earnings. Summer jobs programs for youth have been found to increase the likelihood of high school graduation, and to reduce the likelihood of subsequent involvement in crime and the juvenile justice system. For those not enrolled in school, and often for students as well, employment is necessary for making ends meet.
However, employment can also interfere with academic achievement if work hours conflict with class schedules or interfere with a student’s ability to complete schoolwork. Work commitments may also lead students away from other (nonacademic) beneficial school activities. Working more than 20 hours per week is associated with students having lower grade point averages and dropping out of school, compared to those who work fewer hours. Students with jobs may experience stress due to pressure to perform well in both work and school settings. Overall, the negative effects of employment appear to be linked, not to whether students work, but to how often and how long.,,, Longer work hours are more prevalent among minority and other disadvantaged students.
As of October 2017, 51 percent of all youth ages 16–24 were employed, either full- or part-time. Youth enrolled in high school had an employment rate of 20 percent, while the rate was 47 percent for those in college, either full- or part-time.
Those not enrolled in school had an employment rate of 72 percent. Conversely, 28 percent of this group was not employed, down from a peak of 37.5 percent in 2009 (Appendix 1). However, only 9 percent of youth not enrolled in school (in 2017) were considered unemployed; another 20 percent were not in the labor force.
From 1993 to 2000, employment among youth in all groups generally increased slightly, followed by a decrease from 2000 to 2003. At that point, employment rates held steady until 2006, when they again began to decline. After a steep drop in 2008 and 2009, youth employment for those youth not enrolled in school has since gone up, from 63 to 72 percent from 2009 to 2017. Employment among high school students has increased only slightly since 2009 (from 16 to 20 percent) and has remained fairly steady for college students over that time period. While the rate of employment for white and Asian college students followed the general pattern (rising slightly after 2009 without fully rebounding), employment for black college students followed a different pattern (increasing after 2009, and surpassing its 2007 level in 2015, before declining slightly by 2017). Employment among Hispanic students reached its highest level since 2007 in 2017, at 51 percent (Appendix 1).
The circumstances of youth employment have changed over the past couple of decades. During the Great Recession, conditions reduced employment prospects for both students and others. Among today’s students, there may be greater pressure and competition for academic achievement. Furthermore, college enrollment rates have been rising since 2001. With real wages for this age group falling in recent years, workers may be motivated to enhance their earning power by acquiring further education.
A 2015 survey of young workers (ages 18–30), conducted by the Federal Reserve, provides additional insights. Among those respondents who were currently working, only 45 percent were in a job that was closely related to their field of study. One factor here may be inadequate job counseling: 34 percent reported that they had received no information about jobs or careers while in high school. There is also significant mismatch in employment, with 25 percent of respondents saying they are overqualified for their current job.
Working youth (ages 16–18) who lack a high school diploma and are not enrolled in school may be an important subgroup to reach with programs intended to boost economic self-sufficiency. As a group, they are disproportionately male, Hispanic, and not living with their parents. They are less likely to be engaged with federally sponsored safety-net programs. Nevertheless, more than one-third of these youth contribute at least 20 percent to their households’ annual income.
In October 2017, 22 percent of females enrolled in high school were employed, compared with 17 percent of males. College-enrolled women also had a higher employment rate than their male counterparts: 49 percent compared with 44 percent. However, among youth not enrolled in school, males had a higher employment rate (75 percent) than females (69 percent) (Appendix 1).
In 2017, among youth enrolled in high school, white students had the highest employment rate (21 percent), followed by black and Hispanic students (16 and 14 percent, respectively), and Asian students (8 percent). Among youth enrolled in college, employment was highest among Hispanic students (51 percent), although white students had a similar rate (50 percent). Black students had lower rates of employment (42 percent), and Asian students had the lowest (31 percent). Among youth (ages 16–24) not enrolled in school, white youth had the highest employment rates (74 percent), followed by Asian, Hispanic, and black youth (68, 67, and 66 percent, respectively).
*Hispanic youth may be of any race. Estimates for white, black, and Asian youth include Hispanic youth.
The education a person receives affects their employment status; in addition, the gender gap in employment rates narrows with higher levels of education. In 2017, among youth (ages 16–24) not enrolled in school who did not graduate from high school, 47 percent were employed, either full- or part-time. The employment rate for high school graduates with no college attainment was 70 percent; for those with some college or an associate degree, 81 percent; and for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 87 percent.
Among those who had not graduated from high school, the employment rate gap between males and females was 14 percentage points (53 percent for males and 39 percent for females). For high school graduates, the gap was 12 percentage points (75 versus 63 percent). For those with some college, the gap was 5 percentage points, and for those with a bachelor’s degree or more, it was just 1 percentage point (84 versus 79, and 86 versus 87 percent, respectively). The pattern of difference between males and females is slightly more consistent when looking at unemployment rather than employment rates.
Employment rates for youth with disabilities are about half those of youth without disabilities, for both the 16–19 age group (16 and 30 percent, respectively) and the 20–24 age group (35 and 66 percent, respectively). Youth with disabilities saw a larger reduction in employment rates following the Great Recession than youth without disabilities. From 2009 to 2011, employment rates for youth with disabilities decreased from 18 to 12 percent for ages 16–19 and from 35 to 30 percent for ages 20–24, while employment rates for youth without disabilities fell only from 29 to 26 percent for ages 16–19 and 63 to 62 percent for ages 20–24. While employment rates for youth without disabilities recovered from 2009 levels between 2014 and 2015, rates for youth with disabilities have still not fully recovered.
State and local estimates
State-by-state figures for unemployed teens (ages 16–19), from 2008 through 2016, are available at the KIDS COUNT Data Center: http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/5051-unemployed-teens-age-16-to-19?loc=1&loct=1.
Estimated global youth employment (the employment-to-population ratio, ages 15–24) declined from 55 percent in 1998 to 51 percent in 2008. More information is available at: http://unworldyouthreport.org/media/pdfs/WYR2011.pdf.
The Youth Civic Engagement report also has information on youth employment and gender disparities: http://www.unworldyouthreport.org/images/docs/un_world_youth_report_youth_civic_engagement.pdf.
Because the evidence for the value of employment for students (particularly high school students) is mixed—particularly when long work hours are involved—this review is restricted to those programs and strategies aimed primarily at out-of-school youth.
Disability data: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2010–2017). Persons with a disability: Labor force characteristics news release. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.htm.
All other data: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. (1994–2018). College enrollment and work activity of high school graduates. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/schedule/archives/all_nr.htm#HSGEC.
Raw data source
U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines employment as any paid work by anyone over age 16. Those who are jobless, available for work, and actively looking for jobs are classified as unemployed. Youth employment/unemployment refers to ages 16–24. Some youth are neither employed nor unemployed: e.g., those in the armed forces, those enrolled in school and not looking for work, parents taking care of young children exclusively, and “discouraged workers.”
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 Brainard, L. (2015). Coming of age in the Great Recession. Speech at the Ninth Biennial Federal Reserve System Community Development Research Conference, Washington, DC, April 2, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/brainard20150402a.pdf
 Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. (2016). Experiences and perspectives of young workers. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/2015-experiences-and-perspectives-of-young-workers-201612.pdf
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 National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. (2007). Major research findings 2000-2007: Engagement, achievement, and transition. Atlanta, GA: Author. Retrieved from http://www.nrccte.org/resources/publications/major-research-findings-2000-2007-engagement-achievement-and-transition
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