The Saddest Chart: Young Americans Are Simply Dropping Out

How might we describe, in general terms, American young adulthood? For anyone inclined to despair of humanity’s future in the postwar period, Americans 25 to 35 have proved the great savior. In Greece, they’re eating mother’s moussaka. In France, they are in les rues wearing tight t-shirts and protesting unfair tuition prices. In Russia, they are drunk. In America, they’re working incredibly hard to get ahead. As though ahead were somewhere desirable! When I travel overseas and meet folks my age (27) the same telling confusion pops up, every time: they make reference to their house–inviting us over for drinks, or something–which prompts me, impressed, to say “Congratulations–so what do you do?” And they reply, “I mean my parents’ house.” “Ah.”

Work.

You could say that that’s because we have a peculiar obsession with homeownership in the U.S., but it’s really because young Americans are obsessed with independently achieved success. The entire world of twenty-somethings considers “my mom’s place” and “my place” to be one and the same. Except here.

Which brings me to the saddest chart. We all know that the headline unemployment rate is high–7.6%. We also all know that that figure is secularly skewed downward (by rights, the real rate is well above 10%). And we also all know that all of the organs of the federal government are implicitly or explicitly (in the case of the Fed, which now targets an actual percentage headline unemployment figure in its open market and interest rate decisions) focused on moving that one badly-hewn figure. All of that is more or less absurd, but it misses a big truth about unemployment: what’s going on with the youngest, more vital, more energetic American works.

I used BLS datasets to extract age-partitioned labor force participation rates. The labor force participation rate is the ratio between the labor force and the overall size of their cohort (national population of the same age range). This is usually reported without respect to age. The headline number is for ages 16+. The June 2013 figure is 63.5%. Hey: not bad, right? In the effervescent January 2007 it was only 66.4%. Recovery summer!

Actually, here is the real story:

Labor Force Participation by Age. January 2007 = 100. Via BLS.

This shows labor force participation by age cohort, indexed to January 2007. Young people–most strikingly 18 to 19, but also 20 to 24, and 25 to 35–are simply dropping out of the work force. These young Americans are not in the denominator of the headline unemployment figure. They’re the most energetic, strongest, most inventive Americans. They’re sitting on couches in the Obama economy. Su casa es la casa de su madre. It’s not because “the economy sucks,” which is the strange existential answer that even Ivy-educated twenty-somethings will give you. It is because the Obama presidency actively harms young people, and seeks to do so more every day.

On the reasons why and the methods how, more anon.

Meanwhile, N.B., the 55+ cohort has actually become more active and more involved in the labor force since January 2007.

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