Unexpectedly Intriguing!
17 June 2021

U.S. teens are leading the coronavirus pandemic recession job recovery. But why?

Conor Sen runs through a number of contributing factors that have led to this remarkable outcome:

What makes teenage employment useful to study right now is that teenagers are less affected by the factors holding back labor supply than any other demographic. If they lived at home with their parents, they weren’t eligible for economic impact payments. If they were full-time students, they’d be ineligible for unemployment insurance, making enhanced benefits a nonfactor. They’re unlikely to be parents squeezed out of the labor force by closed schools or a lack of child care. They’re obviously not older workers who may have accelerated retirement plans during the pandemic. And teens were less likely to get seriously ill from Covid-19, and so perhaps less likely to avoid working for health-related reasons.

Barry Ritholtz offers a competing theory:

In 2007, before the great financial crisis, the national minimum wage level was a paltry $5.15. This was not all that long ago. For a teenager with even the most modest withholding / FICA, their take-home is so small it’s not worth it to work. You can see that in the trends over the preceding decades. By most measures — productivity, profitability, inflation, exec comp — the minimum wage has lagged badly. Teens did the math, and said WTF, why bother?

But the minimum wage began to rise during the financial crisis despite skyrocketing unemployment. It was raised in 2008, and then in 2009, and again in 2010. Post GFC, it’s been $7.25 an hour.

Not coincidentally, at exactly that time, the labor participation rate of teenagers began trending upwards. Today, it’s even higher than it was before the pandemic began. Maybe it’s boredom, perhaps some teens just want out of the house where they’ve been stuck with mom and dad and their siblings during the past year.

Or just maybe, local employers are raising wages sufficiently to make summer jobs attractive to teens.

That is an interesting hypothesis and one we can easily investigate. Starting with the Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2020 report on the characteristics of minimum wage workers, which reports that 1,112,000 Americans earned the federal minimum wage or less in 2020. Of these, 222,000 were teens from Ages 16 through 19. Teens therefore accounted for nearly one in five minimum wage workers, the second largest group by age in the U.S.

The largest age group for minimum wage workers is young adults, Age 20 through 24. In 2020, they accounted for 307,000 minimum wage workers, or nearly 28% of the total. Together, teens and young adults represent just under 48% of all those earning the U.S. federal minimum wage or less.

If the hypothesis that local employers offering higher-than-federal minimum wage is what is drawing teens into the U.S. labor force holds, it stands to reason that young adults would be likewise motivated to enter or re-enter the job market for the exact same reason, since they make up a larger share of minimum wage workers. That would be especially true during the last several months when employers have responded to a shortage of labor by boosting wages.

The following chart reveals what happened during that time for both teens (Age 16-19) and young adults (Age 20-24). For good measure, we're showing the data from January 2007 through May 2021 to capture Barry's period of interest, which confirms the data for both groups generally follow the same patterns, but we'll be focusing on more recent months in our analysis.

Percentage of U.S. Population Employed, Age 16-19 and Age 20-24, January 2007 - May 2021

The employment-to-population ratio of teens and young adults peaked in February 2020, just ahead of the arrival of the coronavirus recession in the United States. The percentage of employed for both groups plunged before bottoming in April 2020, after which both saw a steady recovery through October 2020. The onset of the second wave of coronavirus infections through the end of 2020 saw that recovery stall, with overall employment-to-population ratios holding relatively steady during this period.

The data for both groups begins to diverge after January 2020, with the employed share of young adults holding steady while the employed share of teens has risen. Since this period coincides with increased demand for labor and rising wages, the absence of an increase in the share of young adults becoming employed in this period means we can reject the hypothesis that teens only sought jobs when entry level wages rose higher than the federal minimum wage.

As for what has led to this situation, we're afraid that employment data is subject to an abundance of confounding factors, which makes determining which factors are significant difficult to untangle. We think Conor Sen's analysis pointing to teens' ineligiblity for pandemic unemployment benefits deserves greater consideration, especially since teens and young adults aren't very different from one another with respect to the other factors he mentions.

We would also suggest investigating to what extent employers desperate to fill jobs may have lowered their standards for new hires. If we're talking about standards that favored previous experience, training, or education in hiring, then we may have a good candidate for explaining why teens and not young adults are leading the job recovery in 2021.

References

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey. Employed persons and employment-population ratios by age. [Online Database]. Accessed 14 June 2021.

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