The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Thursday that the unemployment rate for 16 to 24 year olds had dropped to 9.2% in July, from 9.6% in July of 2018. That marks the lowest summer youth unemployment rate since 1966.
President Donald Trump celebrated the numbers on Twitter.
However, there’s a bit more to the story.
The unemployment rate measures only those who are actively looking for work, but can’t find it, excluding anyone not actively seeking work. The percentage of youth actually looking for work, 60.6 in July, has barely budged in recent years, and remains well below historic highs. In July of 1989, according to the BLS, 77.5% of youth were in the job market.
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That means the overall percentage of young people with summer jobs is substantially lower than it was 25 years ago. Many economists argue that long-term declines in full-year labor force participation among youth is actually a good sign, since most of the decline reflects increases in school attendance.
However, teen participation was also driven sharply downward by the recession of 2007-2009, a shift that isn’t limited to the youngest workers. After dropping during the worst years of the last recession, the labor force participation rate for all workers has remained historically low even as the economy roars, which may be keeping wages stagnant even as more jobs go unfilled, restricting growth. Factors including the opioid epidemic, increasing entertainment options, and simple discouragement among the long-term unemployed have been blamed for the pernicious decline.
Notably, factors driving down labor force participation are frequently found to impact men more than women, and that held true for the July numbers – labor force participation among young men has declined by 1.2% compared to last year, while it has risen by 1.2% for young women, according to the BLS. White youth are also in the labor force at a much higher rate than those of other ethnic groups, while experiencing generally lower unemployment than nonwhite job-seekers.