May 2012 Young Adult Unemployment Report

The May employment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer the third month of disappointing news for labor markets after a perceived mid-winter rally. At an unemployment rate of 8.2 percent, the economy is not much better off now than when the year began.

In the months since January, young adults -- who had already endured the worst effects of the recession -- managed to close the gap with their older counterparts, bringing their unemployment rates into closer alignment with the economy overall while maintaining fairly steady labor force participation.  But the gains have been slow, and eked out over years.

For younger workers, another month of stagnation represents one more impediment to parity in the labor market and painful delay to the beginning of economically viable working lives.  

The unemployment rate for 25 to 34-year-olds finally dropped to equal that of the total labor force in April, and continued to mirror the market overall in May with an uptick to 8.2 percent.  Men in this age group actually saw unemployment rates decline to 7.9 percent, while women experienced an increase to 8.4 percent.  Labor force participation rates dipped slightly for both men and women.  

Although unemployment rates have fallen more than one full percentage point in the past year -- from 9.3 percent for 25 to 34-year-olds in May 2011 to 8.2 percent for the group today -- the decline failed to inspire greater labor force participation from this cohort of workers.  At 81.7 percent, the labor force participation rate for 25 to 34-year-olds is just 0.1 percent higher than a year ago. 

Twenty to 24-year-olds are similarly behind last year’s rate of labor force participation, at 70.8 percent in May 2012.  In May their unemployment rate declined to its lowest point in over two years, but at 12.9 percent the youngest adults continue to face barriers to employment that put them far behind the national rate.  The entirety of the decrease in unemployment among this age group went to women, whose unemployment rate fell from 12.3 to 11.6 percent in May while men ages 20 to 24 held steady at 14.1 percent.  

The May employment report shows little progress over the past month – or even the past year – but does not present an economic backslide to the recession’s lows.  Instead it is a story of continued stagnation; a jobs deficit that policy has failed to alleviate.  For young people graduating, entering the labor market for the first time, or continuing to linger in unemployment or underemployment, the month of May offered little hope for the kind of labor market boost necessary to put lives and careers on a productive track.  And although young people have already been though worse, at this rate of job creation the achievement of a new generation of fruitful and fulfilling work is only further away.  

Catherine Ruetschlin is a Demos research analyst and co-author of the report The State of Young America. She breaks down the young adult unemployment numbers each and every month after the BLS releases its Employment Situation Summary.