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Young people, for the purposes of this report defined as persons ages 18 through 35, in the U.S. are educated and diverse, yet many are struggling in the lagging economy. Wages are flat across all levels of education, opportunities to even enter the job market can be fleeting for some, and unemployment remains persistently high. While most young people remain optimistic, millions of workers will suffer long-term consequences from prolonged unemployment and underemployment.
Young workers have been forced out of shrinking industries like construction and manufacturing that traditionally paid well. Young workers with less education are moving to lower-paying retail and food service jobs, those with more education are finding employment in fast-growing professional and technical industries like health care and education. However, far too many young workers, shut out by the lagging economy, have left the workforce all together or toil in jobs they are overqualified for.
This report explores the racial and ethnic makeup, unemployment, education attainment, union membership, and industry employment of people ages 18 through 35. The report will also examine historical demographic and economic changes (1989 to 2013) that have significantly impacted young people.
A Changing Population
The young population saw small growth from March 1989 to March 2013 (four percent increase), but their demographics have undergone dramatic changes. In March 2013, there were just over 75 million people ages 18 through 35 in the U.S. Slightly more than half of these young people were women (50.4 percent).
The racial and ethnic makeup of the young population is shifting, as the number of Hispanic, Asian, and Black young people is making up a greater share of the overall population and the non-Hispanic White population loses density.
- In March 1989, non-Hispanic Whites were 74 percent of the young population; in March 2013, they were 54 percent of the young population.
- Among the 75 million young people, 21 percent were of Hispanic origin (15.6 million individuals) in March 2013, up from just nine percent in March 1989. Of the 15.6 million young Hispanics in March 2013, 31 percent were not U.S. citizens.
- Asians were seven percent of the young population, up from just three percent in March 1989.
- Blacks accounted for 14 percent of the young population in March 2013 and 13 percent in March 1989.
Just 7.4 percent of young workers were union members in March 2013. However, as workers age, union density increases; for workers ages 27 through 35, 9.8 percent were union members in March 2013 and for workers ages 30 through 35, 11 percent were union members. Despite low union density, young workers are more likely than older Americans to recognize the value of labor unions in improving the lives of working people.
In March 2013, men accounted for 52 percent of union membership, women 48 percent in March 2013. Nearly 700,000 Hispanics were union members (17 percent of the young union member workforce), over 620,000 Blacks (15 percent of the young union member workforce) were union members, and over 400,000 Asians, American Indians, and people of mixed races were union members (10 percent of the young union member workforce).
Unemployment and Labor Force Participation
Among all 37 major industries, the young workforce grew by less than one percent from March 2004 to March 2013. At the same time, the young population grew by six percent. In March 2013, 10 percent of young workers were unemployed. This equates to nearly 5.6 million young people out of work
in March 2013. Millions of jobs need to be created to put these young people back to work; however, at the current job creation rate it will be a decade before young workers are at full employment. 
The unemployment rate for the youngest workers is staggering. In March 2013, 15.5 percent of workers ages 18 through 26 were unemployed and 34 percent were not in the labor force. In March 1989, 8.1 percent of workers ages 18 through 26 were unemployed and 26 percent were not in the labor force.
Among all young people in March 2013, 26.1 percent were not in the labor force; in March 1989, just 21 percent of young workers were not in the labor force. In the midst of the economic collapse in March 2009, 23.8 percent of young people were not in the labor force. Decreases in labor force participation have long-term consequences for the wages and employability of young workers.
Unemployment rates broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender reveal significant disparities.
- In March 2013, 8.3 percent of non-Hispanic Whites aged 18 through 35 were unemployed. Asians had a 6.2 percent unemployment rate. Among young Hispanic workers, 11.3 percent were unemployed. Black workers have been hit hardest by economic stagnation; 16.8 percent were unemployed and 31 percent were not in the labor force.
- Women had lower unemployment rates than men, 9.2 percent for women compared to 10.8 percent for men in March 2013.
Workers ages 18 through 35 were 52 percent of the nation’s unemployed in March 2013. Of the 5.6 million unemployed young workers in March 2013, 60 percent of them reported their highest grade completed was a high school diploma or less. Young workers who completed an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher account for just 14.5 percent of the young unemployed.
Education attainment is measured by the highest grade completed. The highest grade completed categories include: K-12, no diploma; high school diploma or GED; some college, no degree; Associate’s degree in occupational or vocational program; Associate’s degree in an academic program; Bachelor’s degree; Master’s degree; professional degree; and Ph.D.
Young people have continued to increase their education attainment. Fewer young people report that their highest grade completed was a high school diploma or GED and more young people report having earned at least an Associate’s degree in an academic program.
- In March 2013, 70 percent of young people had earned an Associate’s degree in an occupational or vocational program or less. Thirty percent had earned at least an Associate’s degree in an academic program.
- The number of young people earning Master’s degrees increased by 106 percent from March 1994 to March 2013. Doctorate degree holders increased by 92 percent, Bachelor’s degree holders by 35 percent, and Associate degrees in academic programs increased by 60 percent in the same period.
Education Attainment by Race, Hispanic Origin, and Gender
Young Blacks and Hispanics lag far behind young non-Hispanic Whites and Asians in education attainment. As the U.S. job market increasingly moves toward skilled employment, young Blacks and Hispanics are in danger of being left behind. However, they have made gains since March 1994.
- Just 14 percent of young Hispanics aged 18 through 35 earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher by March 2013. Nearly 20 percent of Blacks earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher. In stark contrast, 50 percent of young Asians and 37 percent of young non-Hispanic Whites had earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher by March 2013.
- While low, the number of young Blacks and Hispanics that have earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher have been growing since March 1994. In March 1994, 13 percent of Blacks and just nine percent of Hispanics had earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher.
- Among young Hispanics, 61 percent have a high school diploma or less than a 12th grade education. For young Blacks, 48 percent have a high school diploma or less education.
- Among young Asians, only 23 percent have a high school diploma or less and for young non-Hispanic Whites 32 percent had a high school diploma or less in March 2013.
Young women outpace young men in education attainment. In March 2013, 33 percent of young women had an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher, up from 23 percent in March 1994. Among young males, 27 percent had an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher, compared to 22 percent in March 1994.
Education Attainment of Union Members
Union membership among young workers 18 through 35 has undergone drastic changes between March 1994 and March 2013.
- In March 2013, 54 percent of young union members had earned an Associate’s degree in an academic program or higher. In March 1994, just 27 percent of young union members had an Associate’s degree or higher. In March 1994, six percent of young union members held a Master’s degree. In March 2013, 18 percent held Master’s degrees.
- As union membership among the more educated grew, union membership among young workers with a high school education or less plummeted. In March 2013, just 19 percent of young union members reported their highest grade completed was a high school diploma or less. In March 1994, 42 percent of young union members had a high school diploma or less.
Young male union members are more likely to have lower education attainment.
- In March 2013, 21 percent of male union members had earned a high school diploma or less. Among young union women it was 14 percent.
- Among young male union members, 41 percent had an Associate’s degree or higher. For young female union members it was 69 percent.
The education disparities among racial and ethnic minorities that was apparent when looking at the young population as a whole, is less stark among young union members.
- 40 percent of young Hispanic union members had earned an Associate’s degree or higher.
- Among young Black union members, 50 percent had earned an Associate’s degree or higher.
- 57 percent of young non-Hispanic White union members had an Associate’s degree or higher.
Class of Worker
Most young workers (79 percent) in March 2013 worked for private, for-profit companies. Private, for-profit employment of young workers has declined 10 percent between March 1989 and March 2013. In contrast, private, nonprofit employment increased 61 percent between March 1994 and March 2013.
There have been significant declines in self-employment, both for those who are incorporated and unincorporated. Unincorporated self-employment was down 41 percent among young workers between March 1989 and March 2013. Incorporated self-employment was down seven percent between March 1989 and March 2013.
While local government employment of young workers rose between March 1989 and March 2013, there were steep declines in federal and local government employment of young people, 20 percent declines in both cases.
Among young union members in March 2013, 44 percent worked for private, for-profit companies. Just six percent of young union members were employed by private, nonprofits and 50 percent were employed by federal, state, and local governments.
Nearly 55.5 million young workers are employed in all major U.S. industries (in March 2013 nearly 5.6 million of these young workers were unemployed). Among all 37 major industries, the young workforce grew by less than one percent between March 2004 and March 2013.
This report will focus on 20 of the 37 major industries. These 20 industries employ 89 percent of the 55.5 million young workers. The largest industry by number employed is retail trade with 8 million employed and the second largest industry is food services and drinking places with 6.1 million employed in March 2013. These two industries employ 26 percent of all young workers.
Industries requiring mostly lower-skilled workers (e.g. retail trade, food service, construction, and manufacturing) employ 26 million workers, while industries mostly employing higher-skilled workers (e.g. finance, professional and technical services, and educational services) had a young workforce of 25.1 million in March 2013.
The industries with the largest declines in young worker employment from March 2004 to March 2013 were wholesale trade with a 36 percent decline in employment of young workers, telecommunications with a 34 percent decline, construction with a 28 percent decline, and manufacturing employment, which declined 19 percent.
Industries with the largest young worker employment gains from March 2004 to March 2013 include mining with a 240 percent increase, Internet publishing and broadcasting employment grew by 374 percent, and health care services, except hospitals grew by 28 percent.
Men tend to work in industries with the largest declines in young worker employment. For example, of the young workers employed in construction, 92 percent were men in March 2013. In manufacturing, 73 percent of the young workforce was male and in wholesale trade 69 percent of the workforce was male in March 2013. In March 2013, 20.2 percent of males were not in the labor force; in March 1999, only 14 percent of males were not in the labor force. A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows, at least for workers 16 to 24, they are not seeking shelter from the poor economy by going back to school.
Industry Employment by Gender
In March 2013, women ages 18 through 35 made up 47 percent of the young workforce. Industries with majority male workforces (construction, manufacturing, and wholesale trade) have seen steep employment declines. Consequently, industries that traditionally employ more women than men have seen an influx of young male workers. Between March 2004 and March 2013:
- The social assistance industry saw a three percent increase in employment of young workers, but there was a 33 percent increase in the number of young male workers (there was a 2 percent decline in the number of women);
- In the health care services industry the young workforce grew by 28 percent. The number of young males grew by 50 percent and the number of young women increased by 22 percent;
- In the arts, entertainment, and recreation industry the young workforce grew by 29 percent. Employment of young males grew by 34 percent while young female employment grew by 23 percent;
- Public administration saw a 23 percent increase in young male employment and a 3 percent decline in young female employment while industry employment of young workers grew 11 percent;
- Employment of young workers in finance declined by nine percent, yet young male employment rose by 12 percent and young female employment declined by 22 percent; and
- Employment of young workers in professional and technical services industries grew by nine percent, but young male employment grew by 17 percent while young female employment was flat.
Industry Employment by Race
Employment of young Black workers grew by six percent between March 2004 and March 2013; however, the gains were not consistent across industries. The number of Black workers in six higher-skilled industries declined, while it increased in six lower-skilled industries. From March 2004 to March 2013:
- Black employment declined in construction (20 percent), manufacturing (10 percent), wholesale trade (31 percent), utilities (39 percent), telecommunications (46 percent), finance (42 percent), professional and technical services (15 percent), educational services (1 percent), social assistance (19 percent), and arts, entertainment, and recreation (2 percent).
- Black employment increased in mining (730 percent), retail trade (23 percent), transportation and warehousing (25 percent), administrative and support services (11 percent), hospitals (13 percent), health care services (19 percent), accommodation (62 percent), food service and drinking places (36 percent), and public administration (four percent).
In stark contrast, employment of young Asians increased 24 percent and Asians had employment gains in 18 out of the 20 selected industries. Only wholesale trade (three percent decline) and telecommunications (55 percent decline) had employment declines. Out of all 37 industries, Asians had employment declines in 10 industries; Blacks had employment declines in 16.
Young Hispanic Employment by Industry
Young Hispanic employment grew by 13 percent from March 2004 to March 2013. In March 2004, Hispanics were 18 percent of the young workforce; in March 2013 employment increased to 20 percent.
The greatest numbers of young Hispanics are employed in food services followed closely by retail trade. These two industries employ 27 percent of young Hispanics. While young Hispanics employed in professional and technical occupations make up a small percentage of the young Hispanic workforce, they have made strong gains. Between March 2004 and March 2013:
- Young Hispanic employment in professional and technical services grew by 40 percent (the industry grew by nine percent);
- In finance, young Hispanic employment grew 12 percent despite a nine percent decline of young worker employment;
- Educational services employment of young Hispanics grew by 22 percent;
- Young Hispanic employment in health care services grew by 45 percent;
- Social assistance employment grew 32 percent for young Hispanics;
- Young Hispanic employment in arts, entertainment, and recreation grew by 73 percent while industry employment for all young workers increased by 29 percent; and
- Employment of young Hispanics in public administration grew by 92 percent despite modest job gains for young workers in this industry.
Education and Industry Employment of Young Workers
Within the young workforce, just 10 percent do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent. Twenty-seven percent of young workers report that the highest degree completed is a high school diploma or GED. Among young people in the workforce, 30 percent had a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
Similar to the young population as a whole, the young workforce is attaining higher levels of education. In lower-skilled industries, the number of workers with a high school education or less decreased between four and 23 percent between March 2004 and March 2013.
Changes in education attainment are also present among young workers in high-skilled industries. However, the education gains also mean mounting student loan debt for young workers. In 2013, student loan debt, for all debt holders topped one trillion dollars. However, the education gains have not equated to wage growth; “between 2000 and 2012, the wages of young college graduates decreased 8.5 percent.”
Industry Employment by Union Membership
While young worker union density among all industries was 7.4 percent in March 2013, eight industries of the 20 selected industries have union density that is at or above the average for all young union members. Two of the omitted industries, publishing (except internet) and other information services also have above average union membership among young workers.
Union density in lower-skilled occupations has been on the decline, while high-skilled occupations have seen increased density from March 2004 to March 2013 among young workers. From March 2004 to March 2013, union density in construction had fallen from 8.7 percent to 8.4 percent, manufacturing fell from 9.1 percent to 6.8 percent, telecommunications fell from 14.6 percent to 13.2 percent, and transportation and warehousing fell from 19 percent to 14.4 percent. The utilities industry was largely unchanged at 15.4 percent union density in March 2013.
Conversely, from March 2004 to March 2013, young worker union density in educational services rose from 24.5 percent to 28 percent, hospitals increased from 8.5 percent density to 14.4 percent, health care services rose from 4.2 percent to 8.2 percent, social assistance increased from 4.1 percent to 8.4 percent, and public administration rose from 22.8 percent to 29 percent young worker union density.
The remaining industries, of the select 20, mostly have negligible union density. Arts, entertainment, and recreation had 70,000 young union members, but this only amounted to 4.5 percent density.
The young population and workforce have seen significant change in the last 25 years. Young workers face tough challenges, including high unemployment, low labor force participation, and stagnant wages. Young workers have faced these challenges by increasing their competitiveness in the labor market through higher education attainment despite the absence of increased wages and the increasing cost of higher education.
Young workers have quickly pivoted from declining industries as evidence by the increased concentration of men in industries where women make up strong majorities of the workforce. However, being adaptable to labor market changes is not going to protect a generation from the long-term effects of a weak labor market.
Unions are a natural ally for young workers. Unions are strong advocates for issues of central concern to young people: student loan reform; access to job opportunities; improved wages; a voice in the workplace; and immigration reform. Vocal support for these issues is likely why young people are more likely to be supportive of unions than older Americans. America’s unions should seize this opportunity to reach out to young people, even before they enter the workforce, and work together to advance their shared goals.
Unless indicated otherwise, all data is from the U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), Monthly Microdata for March 1989, March 1994, March 1999, March 2004, March 2009, and March 2013. The CPS is a monthly survey of about 60,000 U.S. households.
For more information about professional and technical workers, please visit DPE’s website: www.dpeaflcio.org.
The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) comprises 21 AFL-CIO unions representing over four million people working in professional and technical occupations. DPE-affiliated unions represent: teachers, college professors, and school administrators; library workers; nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals; engineers, scientists, and IT workers; journalists and writers, broadcast technicians and communications specialists; performing and visual artists; professional athletes; professional firefighters; psychologists, social workers, and many others. DPE was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 1977 in recognition of the rapidly growing professional and technical occupations.
DPE Research Department
815 16th Street, N.W., 7th Floor
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 638-0320 extension 114
 David Madland and Ruy Teixeira. 2009. New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.
 See Catherine Ruetschlin and Tamara Draut. April 2013. Stuck: Young American’s Persistent Job Crisis. Washington, DC. Demos.
 Heidi Shierholz. May 22, 2013. In recession’s wage, many young adults out of work and out of school. Washington, DC. Economic Policy Institute, Economic Snapshot.
 Heidi Shierholz. April 4, 2013. Wages of young college graduates have failed to grow over the last decade. Washington, DC. Economic Policy Institute, Economic Snapshot.
 See David Madland and Ruy Teixeira. 2009. New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress.