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What Unemployment Rates Don't Tell Us About Millennials' Jobs Woes

Catherine Ruetschlin

Unemployment and underemployment persist even in the best of times, as workers “churn” through the labor market seeking better opportunities and higher wages. But this is not the best of times, and the unemployment and underemployment faced by young people today is not pushing us toward better opportunities. Rather, it holds us back from achieving our productive potential and puts other concerns – like starting a family or buying a home – on the backburner.

After years of discouraging labor market reports, the figures from December and January rallied national optimism and offered a moment of relief for workers wringing their hands over their own economic prospects and those of the nation. But while the numbers are good – and they are actually good – the unemployment rate is just a part of the story of labor market experiences. And for many young adults, it is merely an anecdote that doesn’t begin to describe the real effects of the recession on their working lives.
Employment took a nosedive at the end of 2007, and after four years only now seems to promise an upward trend. At the same time, underemployment rates doubled but received little attention from media or policymakers seeking a way to quell the exodus of jobs and workers from the labor market. Underemployment includes those who are unemployed, as well as workers who are part time because they cannot find full time work. Added to that number are the “marginally attached” – those who want a job and are available to work, but haven’t looked in the past four weeks (eliminating them from the count of unemployed persons). This measure, officially called the U-6 Special Unemployment Rate, captures weaknesses in the labor market that are left out of the official unemployment rate. And it is not offering much reason for comfort.