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A Different Way to Understand the Employment Numbers

Friday's employment numbers showed a reasonable gain of 165,000 jobs added to payroll in April. These are preliminary numbers, as today’s report also shows that the numbers for February and March have now been adjusted upward. So, there is some hope that things may be better than they appear. A separate survey also was released today, based on a survey of households, from which we learned that the overall unemployment rate edged slightly down to 7.5%.

The two surveys—one of employers’ payroll reports, the Current Employment Survey (CES); the other, the Current Population Survey (CPS)—are not perfectly comparable.  They are related and may report a different trend, since one is asking household members and the other is looking at employer administrative data.

But here is one way to look at them. Since February 2010, when we started a string of consecutive positive payroll reports, the CES has reported adding over 6 million jobs to America's payrolls. During that time, the household survey, the CPS, shows that among those aged 20 to 24, an additional 1,020,000 young adults reported having a paid job. The household survey also shows that since February, the population of those 20 to 24 has increased by 1,090,000 young adults. A virtual wash.

Averaging the payroll additions since this long string of job gains began gives us 157,000 added to payrolls each month. But that translates into a stalemate with the growth of the number of young adults and the share of new jobs they are gaining. The problem is that in February 2010 only 59.9% of young adults reported being employed. Those are levels reminiscent of the early 1960s, when women in that age group had much lower labor force participation. It is in stark contrast to the late 1970s, late 1980s and 1990s when the share of young adults working was in the 70% range.

The experience of young adults in the labor market is critical to their future earnings success. They should be building up the necessary job skills and networks to advance in the labor market. They should be primed for taking off in their 30s to successful careers. But, it also is crucial to our economy to have a cohort of primed, skilled and work experienced workers ready to fill-in as older workers transition to retirement.

Clearly, a pace of job growth of near 160,000 jobs is not fast enough to get young adults out of their employment rut. We have been distracted from their plight—from our plight—of the deep dimensions of this job crisis because we have politicians still arguing about the role of government as if in a 1980s time warp. Those who currently turned 20 were born 12 years after Ronald Reagan declared, “Government is the problem;” they were not in kindergarten when President Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it.” What they have seen government do is to bail out fat-cats on Wall Street who bet wrong on a housing bubble they created, rush to end the effects of sequestration on Congress’ ability to fly home for district days but leave in place cuts for Head Start so that young poor working mothers would not have access to high quality child care for their children, pass favored nation trade legislation to usher in a flood of imports from China and be silent when a plant in West, Texas, blew up, killing 14 people. To them, the government is on the side of the rich. To them, Congress is hypocritical.  Republicans ran up deficits when it was caused by tax cuts for the wealthy but stymies the discussion of jobs for young people if it means running a deficit.

Fifty years ago we treated the young with indifference in sending them off to fight in Vietnam. Today, we treat them with indifference when we fail to have a government that will discuss getting young adults jobs and instead leave them a bleak future. Are we just reliving the failure of ideologies of old men enamored with their fetishes, blinded to the reality of their children?

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