Six years after finishing college – with a degree in molecular and cellular biology – Sydney Gray works 18 hours a week as a cashier at a New Orleans farmers' market. Other times, she volunteers there to get free food.
"I can't even get a job waiting tables," says Ms. Gray, whose two previous part-time jobs ended when the employers folded. "When I apply for jobs, I'm competing against people with master's degrees and PhDs."
Today's job market is not only grueling for young people, it's also perplexing. The unemployment rate for 20 to 24-year-olds fell slightly to 12.9 percent in September, nearly six percentage points higher than the national average of 7.2 percent and slightly higher than that figure was in September 2012 (12.4 percent). Although the economy overall has recovered nearly three quarters of the jobs it lost during the Great Recession, most of them are going to older workers, not younger ones. A recent Gallup poll found that fewer 18-to-29-year-olds held full-time jobs in June than they did in the past three years.
The implications are bad enough for the young unemployed, a generation carrying a record trillion-dollar debt in student loans. Getting a late career start could mean a lifetime of reduced overall earnings and savings. But these problems are also rippling outward. Parents are housing a record number of their adult children – 21.6 million people ages 18 to 31 last year, reports the Pew Research Center in Washington. This is squeezing both generations financially, reducing demand, and slowing the recovery even more.
It's "unusually bad" for young people, says Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, a New York think tank. "Since the recession ended, the largest portion of job gains have gone to older workers, especially those aged 55 and older."
Melissa Szumlic, a 2010 college graduate, knows how hard it is. While working as a part-time hostess for an upscale restaurateur in Tampa, Fla., she sought an entry-level communications job with its corporate office in Washington. But she was told she lacked experience. When a dining sales position opened up in the Tampa operation, she did it temporarily and successfully for three months. But when filling it on a permanent basis, the firm hired an older person.
"It's frustrating when you keep hearing that a position is entry level, with entry-level wages, but you don't have the experience for it," says Ms. Szumlic, who is now employed at another firm.
The problem is nationwide: In August, 41 percent of the 11.3 million unemployed were between the ages of 20 and 34, even though they make up only 32 percent of the civilian labor force. That's a big change, says James Stoeckmann, senior practice leader at World at Work, an association of human-resource professionals based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "In the past, you'd hear that employers were looking for younger, lower-cost workers, who were more malleable. It's ironic for today's young adults to be squeezed out by higher-skilled workers for the same price" they'd pay for entry-level work. This recession was so bad that it has compelled older workers to accept pay cuts to get a job, Mr. Stoeckmann says.
What can be done? Young adults themselves can take crucial steps – focused on powering up résumés and cover letters – to get a competitive boost. Individuals "can invest in themselves" by returning to school, taking courses, and going online, he says. "Individuals have to put their nose to the grindstone and research the skills needed to get into, or advance, in their field."
A larger remedy depends on policymakers, who must do more to help jobless young adults, says Rory O'Sullivan, policy and research director at Young Invincibles, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy organization for young adults. As a short-term step, he recommends an expansion of national service jobs, such as those provided through AmeriCorps. Such programs provide services like tutoring, building homes for the poor, and aiding storm-ravaged communities, which can give younger workers job experience to show potential employers.
Longer term, he says, young people need more job training before leaving school. High school career academies should be expanded. And college courses should focus more on skills needed at work.