Young Americans face serious challenges in making a successful transition to adulthood. Increasingly, good-paying careers require some postsecondary credential and work experience, yet many are unable to earn the necessary credentials to enter rewarding careers. Moreover, joblessness has reached new highs for young people in their early 20s. Among 23- to 24-year-olds not attending school, 28 percent were not employed in 2013, up from about 20 percent in 2000-01. Though part of the decline in youth employment is associated with increased school enrollment, about half or more of the drop in jobs results from a rising share neither working nor in school. As of 2013, about one in three black 23- to 24-year-old men were neither working nor in school. These weak employment figures partly reflect the slow recovery from the Great Recession and partly a long-term decline. Particularly worrisome are the long-term impacts of this low employment, as the loss of appropriate work experience inflicts damage for many years to come.
The difficulties experienced by recent youth cohorts in obtaining postsecondary credentials persists despite high enrollment rates of young high school graduates at two-year and four-year colleges. But completion rates among enrollees at two-year institutions and the least-prestigious four-year schools, where the disadvantaged tend to concentrate, are low. Many young people arrive with weak academic preparation and are steered to remedial classes that they often fail to successfully complete, thereby ending their postsecondary careers. And even among those who obtain certificates or degrees, a lack of information about the job market and appropriate career counseling, as well as limited campus teaching capacity in high-demand fields, ensure that many students obtain postsecondary credentials with only limited labor market value. Young men are particularly vulnerable; they obtain far fewer postsecondary degrees than do young women.
While these difficulties are well known, policies to improve youth schooling and labor market outcomes are limited by the lack of evidence concerning what works and by tight fiscal environments at the state and federal levels. Political polarization at the federal level contributes to the problem as well, especially hindering the ability of Congress and the President to agree on job creation, training, and other interventions in the labor market.