As COVID-19 cases have surged in the United States, young adults face a weakening labor market and an uncertain educational outlook. Between February and June 2020, the share of young adults who are neither enrolled in school nor employed – a measure some refer to as the “disconnection rate” – has more than doubled, according to a new analysis of Census Bureau data by Pew Research Center. Most of the increase is related to job loss among young workers.

By June 2020, nearly three-in-ten U.S. youths were neither in school nor working

At the beginning of 2020, the share of Americans ages 16 to 24 who were “disconnected” from work and school mirrored rates from the previous year. But between March and April, the share jumped significantly, from 12% to 20%. By June 2020, 28% of youths were neither in school nor the workplace.

While not the highest on record, June’s 28% disconnection rate – which translates into 10.3 million young people – is the highest ever observed for the month of June, dating back to 1989 when the data first became available. This trend is one indicator of the difficulties young people are facing as they transition into adulthood during a global pandemic.

The lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in a large decline in employment, particularly among 16- to 24-year-olds. The school year has ended for many youths as well. These developments prompt investigation into a common indicator of youth well-being by assessing the share of youth who are neither employed nor enrolled in school. 

The analysis is based on the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS), conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The CPS is the nation’s premier labor force survey and is the basis for the monthly national unemployment rate released on the first Friday of each month. The CPS is based on a sample survey of about 60,000 households. In addition to determining the respondent’s employment status, the basic monthly questionnaire also includes information on enrollment in school or college during the previous week. All estimates are nonseasonally adjusted.

The CPS micro data files provided by the IPUMS at the University of Minnesota were analyzed. In IPUMS the basic school enrollment questions are consolidated into the variable SCHLCOLL.

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected data collection efforts by the U.S. government in its surveys, especially limiting in-person data collection. This resulted in about a 17 percentage point decrease in the response rate for the CPS in June 2020. It is possible that some measures of employment and enrollment and its demographic composition are affected by these changes in data collection.

It is important to note that some of the increase in the disconnection rate in June reflects the end of the school year around May. Even in a typical year, the share of students enrolled in school or college tends to fall between May and June because many young people do not enroll in summer school.

Most of the 8 percentage point increase in detachment from June 2019 to June 2020 can be attributed to coronavirus-related job loss among young workers, as the share enrolled in school has remained relatively stable, aside from seasonal patterns.

The rise in detachment from work or school has been widely shared across the nation’s youth

The steep increase in youth detachment from February to June is fairly widespread. It includes both men and women, each major racial and ethnic group, those living in metropolitan and rural areas, and high school and college-aged students (16 to 19 and 20 to 24, respectively).

The coronavirus has narrowed the gap in rural and metropolitan areas. In the last few years, young people in rural areas have been more likely to be out of work or school than their metropolitan counterparts. However, in 2020, the difference between rural and metropolitan youth has narrowed from a difference of 4 percentage points in February to less than 1 in June. One explanation for this might be that densely populated cities were hit first and have suffered higher infection and deaths rates than rural areas

More than 4 million fewer youths were employed in June 2020 compared with a year earlier due to a large decline in employment. The share of youths enrolled in school or college in both 2019 and 2020 was 39%. Earlier Pew Research Center analyses have shown that young adults are among the most likely to have suffered virus-related job loss.

Richard Fry  is a senior researcher focusing on economics and education at Pew Research Center.
Amanda Barroso  is a writer/editor focusing on social trends at Pew Research Center.