How Young People Are Navigating the U.S. Work Economy in 2019


The percentage of adolescents age 16-19 in the workforce has dropped significantly, from 50% in 2000 to 34% in 2018.
The pressure is on young people to establish themselves as brands, take side jobs, and prioritize digital skills.

Anyone who thinks this is an easy time for someone to navigate early adulthood is sorely mistaken. Young people face an unclear future. In the coming years AI systems will destroy and create entire industries and an end to scarcity will erode the basic working model.

Then there’s the onerous burden of student debt, plus the devaluation of degrees (driven by population growth, high levels of college attendance, and the introduction of countless impractical degree disciplines) which threatens to leave graduates disillusioned if not addressed.

Is this cause for major concern? It’s true that the U.S. (like many other countries) is seeing an ageing workforce due to longer average lifespans, and the country will need a thriving younger population to handle the rising numbers of retirement-age citizens — but adversity often breeds innovation, and there’s never been more opportunity for the ambitious to achieve great things.

So we have determined that there are advantages and disadvantages for the youth of today, and if we want to get a glimpse at how they might respond to the challenges of tomorrow, we can consider how they’re responding to the challenges they currently face.

Let’s do just that.

They’re entering the workforce later

Think of a classic coming-of-age story featuring a teenage protagonist enduring their teens and emerging stronger and wiser. Do you picture them working a summer job? Perhaps you see them behind a pretzel stand, or folding shirts in a clothing store.

The link with adolescence is firmly traditional. Teenage jobs are mundane but reliable — they develop the classic work ethic of arriving on time, being presentable, and paying your dues. Since the turn of the millennium, though, the percentage of adolescents between 16 and 19 in the workforce has dropped significantly — from 50.9% in 2000 to just 34% in 2018. Why is this? 

The likely reason is that students are working longer school years than ever before. Pushed to excel by parents, teachers (and even peers), they put all their energy into competing academically in the hope that that effort will pay off years later (sweeping away accumulated debt and clearing a path to prosperity).

Whether you consider this a good thing or a bad thing will depend on your view of the purpose of adolescence. If you prize the personal development afforded by having some freedom, you’ll long for a return to the days of teenagers having a gradual transition into the working world and the soft skills that are developed through that process — but if you believe the point to be equipping young people with wide-ranging skills, you’ll view this change as a net positive. I happen to lean towards the former: if necessity is the mother of invention, then play is the father.

They’re taking on second jobs and side ventures

Members of older generations often support the perception that job security used to be common: almost a matter of course. An enterprising young adult need only work hard, apply themselves, and see that dedication rewarded with a full-time salary, a fair promotion path, and the promise of a lifelong career with the very same company at which they began as an intern.

Regardless of how accurate that view is, that idyllic situation is extremely far from what young people must contend with now. Instead, they face the gig economy — a system that runs through ad-hoc working arrangements instead of lengthy commitments. This is a global change driven by automated logistics and economic uncertainty.

It’s inarguable that some benefit from this arrangement — those with in-demand skills and a willingness to be optimally flexible can achieve strong incomes through picking their jobs very carefully — but others suffer from the lack of stability. Since this type of work has never been uncommon in America, though, it’s less of a shock to the system than in other countries.

It’s more concerning that the pressure is now on young people to establish themselves as brands as early as possible. Social media is a troubling frontier, and as optimistic as it seems in principle for teenagers to be fully aware of how to raise their value, it makes for an odd contrast with the rising distaste for capitalism in the Democratic-skewing younger demographics.

They’re prioritizing varied digital skills

Young people now understand two things very keenly: that they will likely never be afforded the luxury of allowing their skills to stagnate, and that they must be capable (if not proficient) with digital technologies in addition to their individual passions. After all, it won’t be long before everything runs through digital systems to some extent — we’re already nearing that point.

Understanding the significance of algorithms will move from being a luxury to being a basic requirement. Teenagers today recognize that long-term value lies in foundational and adaptive skills that will retain value, and even as the education system struggles to adjust, they’re able to train themselves, even if communicating the ROI of those new skills to employers is still difficult.

This all comes down to the near-limitless access afforded by the internet. One of the biggest reasons to be hopeful about the future of employment is that educational institutions no longer have the power to destroy futures. With the massive low-cost toolkit that is the online landscape — and the right support from social enterprises — a teen can achieve wonders. They don’t need offers to stack shelves when they can barter online, and they don’t need scholarship prospects when they can study anything they like on their own schedule. The trick comes when it's time to apply for jobs and communicate the ROI of their skills to employers in a way that employers can understand. But the good news is that the U.S. Chamber Foundation is working on that one too. Once again, a solution driven by the power of new technology. 

The youngest generations may face many challenges, but they have the flexibility and the will to overcome them. As much as internet access in childhood can cause issues, it also teaches research skills and ensures that everyone can chart a path to eventual success. We need only give young people time — they’ll exceed our expectations.