Kids These Days: Young Workers in Lane County

by Henry Fields

July 1, 2021

So much is changing in our economy so quickly it can be tough to tell the difference between a long term change and an ephemeral trend. In summer 2021, with the heat of the economy and the temperature outside rapidly increasing, one narrative we see everywhere is young people getting jobs. Is rebounding youth employment a mirage or the next big thing?

The New York Times recently reported (The Luckiest Workers in America? Teenagers) that more young people are looking for and getting jobs this summer. Those that get jobs are more likely to finding rising wages and boosted benefits as employers seek to quickly staff up after 15 months of limited service.

Indeed, the number of young people employed relative to their size in the population is already back to pre-recession levels – which is not the case for workers of all ages – and hasn’t been this high since the Great Recession in 2008, which devastated youth employment. In May 2021, the unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds was 10%, a rapid decline from the nearly 30% rate less than a year ago.

It will be a while before we get more up-to-date data on the numbers of youth employed locally, but we can look to the long-term trend to understand where young people are starting from. Youth employment is more volatile than overall employment – young people are more likely to be seasonally employed, work in industries with high turnover, or move around between jobs as they settle on a career path.

In Lane County as in the nation, fewer young people work now than in the past. There were about 25% fewer workers age 14 to 18 in 2020 than there were in 1992, and only about 6% more workers age 19 to 24. The overall workforce grew about 36% in that time.
Those lower employment levels aren’t due to increased laziness. The share of people age 16 to 24 who aren’t in the labor force or enrolled in school was about 9% in October of 2020, which is lower than in the 1990s. Instead, it seems that there are structural reasons for the decline, including increased enrollment in education and educational activities.

Young workers, especially teenagers, have had sharper employment peaks during expansions and declines during recessions. They may be among the fastest hired during job growth, as you can see relatively sharp increases in the 1990s and mid-2000s. They also lose or leave jobs fastest in a recession, and each recession seems to bring the employment peak lower over the long term.

As local data for 2021 becomes available, we’ll be looking more closely at the trends to see if youth employment continues its expansion and what that trend looks like here in Lane County.


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