Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Young, Underemployed and Optimistic

Coming of Age, Slowly, in a Tough Economy

Executive Summary

This report is based on findings from a Pew Research Center survey conducted Dec. 6-19, 2011, among 2,048 adults nationwide, including 808 young adults (ages 18 to 34). The report also draws on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here is a summary of the key findings:

Young adults hit hard by the recession. A plurality of the public (41%) believes young adults, rather than middle-aged or older adults, are having the toughest time in today’s economy. An analysis of government economic data suggests that this perception is correct. The recent indicators on the nation’s labor market show a decline in the unemployment rate. Nonetheless, since 2010, the share of young adults ages 18 to 24 currently employed (54%) has been its lowest since the government began collecting these data in 1948. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults—roughly 15 percentage points—is the widest in recorded history.1 In addition, young adults employed full time have experienced a greater drop in weekly earnings (down 6%) than any other age group over the past four years.

Public says today’s young adults have it harder than their parents did. Large majorities of the public say it’s harder for young adults to reach many of the basic financial goals their parents may have taken for granted. More than eight-in-ten (82%) say finding a job is harder for young adults today than it was for their parents’ generation. And at least seven-in-ten say it’s harder now to save for the future (75%), pay for college (71%) or buy a home (69%).

Tough economic times altering young adults’ daily lives, long-term plans. While negative trends in the labor market have been felt most acutely by the youngest workers, many adults in their late 20s and early 30s have also felt the impact of the weak economy. Among all 18- to 34-year-olds, fully half (49%) say they have taken a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills, with 24% saying they have taken an unpaid job to gain work experience. And more than one-third (35%) say that, as a result of the poor economy, they have gone back to school. Their personal lives have also been affected: 31% have postponed either getting married or having a baby (22% say they have postponed having a baby and 20% have put off getting married). One-in-four (24%) say they have moved back in with their parents after living on their own.

Adulthood begins later than it used to. In a 1993 Newsweek poll, 80% of parents with young children said children should be financially independent from their parents by the age of 22. Today, only 67% of parents hold that view. Three-in-ten (31%) of today’s parents say children shouldn’t have to be on their own financially until age 25 or later.

For young adults, bad times don’t trump optimism. Among those ages 18 to 34, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) say they either have or earn enough money now or expect they will in the future. Only 9% say they don’t think they will ever have enough to live the life they want. Adults ages 35 and older are much less optimistic—28% say they don’t anticipate making enough money in the future.2 While young people are less likely now than they were before the recession to say they currently have enough income, their level of optimism is undiminished from where it was in 2004.

Older adults have maintained their standard of living. If any age group has weathered the economic storm better than others, it has been adults ages 65 and older. In a 2004 Pew Research survey, similar shares of young adults (50%), middle-aged adults (52%) and older adults (50%) rated their personal financial situation “excellent” or “good.” By 2011, a large gap had opened up between older adults and everyone else: 54% of older adults gave their personal financial situation a high rating, compared with roughly one-third of younger and middle-aged adults.

Among the employed, job satisfaction has remained steady… For those young adults who are employed, most are relatively satisfied with their job. Job satisfaction among young workers is roughly the same as it was before the recession and remains somewhat lower than the satisfaction rate among workers ages 35 and older.

…But young workers feel more vulnerable than they used to. In a 1998 survey, 65% of 18- to 34-year-olds working full time or part time said they were extremely or very confident that they could find another job if they lost or left their current job.3 The share highly confident fell dramatically to 25% in 2009. It has rebounded somewhat since then (to 43% in the current survey) but is still nowhere near the 1998 level.

Few young workers see their current job as a “career.” Among all 18- to 34-year-olds, only 30% consider their current job a career. This compares with 52% among workers ages 35 and older. However, the survey suggests that young adults quickly begin to transition from job to career. Among the youngest workers, those ages 18 to 24, only 11% say their job is a career. Among workers ages 25 to 29, the share is three times that (34%). And among those ages 30 to 34, fully half (49%) say they view their job as a career.

Most young workers say they don’t have the education and training to get ahead. Among 18- to 34-year-olds who are employed, less than half (46%) say they have the education and training necessary to get ahead in their job or career. Among those who are not working, only 27% say they are adequately prepared for the kind of job they want. Having a college degree makes a big difference on this question: 69% of young college graduates who are working say they have the education and training they need to get ahead. This compares with only 39% of those who do not have a degree and are not enrolled in college.

College enrollment rates are tied to employment declines among the young. A greater share of young adults are enrolled in high school or college today than at any time in recorded history. This increase in enrollment is one reason that fewer young adults are on the job today, but it doesn’t account for all the job losses experienced by this age group in recent years. The Great Recession broadly reduced the employment rate of young adults regardless of whether they were in school. Among those enrolled in school, the employment rate fell from 47.6% in 2007 to 40.7% in 2011. And among those not enrolled in school, it fell from 73.2% to 65.0% over that same period.

About the Data

The general public survey is based on telephone interviews conducted Dec. 6-19, 2011, with a nationally representative sample of 2,048 adults ages 18 and older living in the continental United States, including an oversample of 346 adults ages 18 to 34. A total of 769 interviews were completed with respondents contacted by landline telephone and 1,279 with those contacted on their cellular phone. Data are weighted to produce a final sample that is representative of the general population of adults in the continental United States. Survey interviews were conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, in English and Spanish. Margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for results based on the total sample and 4.4 percentage points for adults ages 18-34 at the 95% confidence level. For more details, see Appendix 1.

The labor market data are based on the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly survey of approximately 55,000 housing units sponsored jointly by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The basic monthly data are one of the U.S. government’s primary sources of labor force statistics in the country; for example, the nation’s monthly unemployment rate is based on the CPS. Most of the series on employment, unemployment and labor force participation utilized the monthly data, as compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The information on school enrollment and weekly earnings come from the Merged Outgoing Rotation Group (MORG) extracts of the CPS.

  1. In this case “all adults” refers to those ages 18 to 64. Those ages 65 and older are excluded due to the relatively small share in the labor force.
  2. This includes both employed and not employed adults. Employed adults were asked if they “earn enough money” or expect they will in the future; adults who are not employed were asked if the “have enough income” or expect to in the future.
  3. 1998 data are from a survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis, University of Connecticut, and the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University, Aug. 5-16, 1998, among 1,001 adults in the labor force.
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