“Young adults remain disproportionately affected by the economic shock,” the Center for Economic And Policy Research said this week, stating the obvious, on the way to quantifying the scope of what I’ll describe as a combination of precarity and apathy among Americans aged 20 to 24.
The simple figure (below), compares the number and percentage of young adults not working or in school (the “NEET rate”) during the first quarter of 2021 with the same figures for the first quarter of 2020. It’s based on the CEPR’s analysis of the monthly Current Population Survey.
It’s easy enough to write the headlines. Almost one in five young adults in the US is neither working nor in school. That figure was 14.7% pre-pandemic.
There were almost three-quarters of a million more young adults not working or formally learning from January through March of this year versus 12 months previous.
The increase can be explained entirely by joblessness. School attendance was actually higher (slightly) in Q1 of this year versus 2019.
To be sure, it’s not all bad news. As the CEPR wrote this week, 20- to 24-year-olds “have experienced a steady decline in NEET rates since their April 2020 peak.” Additionally, the 18.3% rate during Q1 was lower than the full-year rate for 2020 (figure below).
As you can see, the pandemic erased a decade of progress. The percentage point increase dwarfed that witnessed during the GFC, likely due to the concentration of job losses in sectors where young adults are likely to be employed.
It goes without saying (sadly) that the racial disparity is dramatic. The NEET rate for African American young adults in Q1 of this year was almost 25%. For Hispanics it was nearly 20%. The rate for white young adults was 15.9% during the first quarter.
Anecdotally, I’d note that apathy has set in, at least according to the handful of restaurant and bar owners I still keep in touch with. On Friday, one such connection in the southeast told me that when she reached out to explore rehiring a former bartender, her icebreaker (“What have you been up to?”) was met with an icy reply (“Nothing productive with my life.”).
Meanwhile, an acquaintance who, while not quite eligible for the age bracket discussed above, is young enough to be representative, recently told me she wasn’t interested in returning to a regular schedule, favoring sporadic weekend shifts at a bar owned by a friend and an under-the-table cash wage earned serving sandwiches a few hours per week.
“Do you know what I’m doing right now?,” she asked, on our last phone call. “Staring at a Charlie Brown tree.”
Apparently, someone in her apartment complex had discarded a potted plant, which she “rescued” (her word) and draped with Christmas lights.
“Do you want a picture?,” she wondered. “That’s ok,” I said.