Where are the early 20-something job seekers?

People ages 20 to 24 are increasingly missing from the labor market, The Wall Street Journal reported Nov. 13. 

It is no surprise that labor-force participation rates dropped during the pandemic: For people over age 15, the rate dropped from 63.1 percent in 2019 to 61.7 percent in 2020. But it bounced back to 62.2 percent in October, the Journal reported. That was not the case for people ages 20 to 24, who participated at a rate of 72.1 percent in 2019, and a rate of 70.8 percent in October. 

The total loss is about half a million workers in their early 20s, according to the Journal. And there are several reasons why this may be. 

People in their early 20s may be furthering their education rather than hopping directly into the job market. Graduate school enrollment for 21- to 24-year-olds is up 8.5 percent this fall semester from two years ago; pursuing higher education may be a way of reclaiming the college experience from the years of lost in-person studies during the pandemic, the Journal reported. 

But education does not account for everything. The rate of U.S. workers aged 21 to 24 not working, training or in school rose from 14.67 percent in 2020 to 18.27 percent in 2021, according to the Journal. This could be because some 21-year-olds dropped out of school during their senior year, when the pandemic began, and this rate is historically higher among those without a high school education. 

Caretaking is reported as the main reason why this age range remains unemployed, though those rates have not jumped since 2019, according to the Journal. A fear of catching COVID-19 or continued illness from long COVID-19 may be keeping some out of the workforce, while a tight labor market allows potential workers to remain patient until the "right" opportunity comes along. 

And young people's general outlooks toward work are shifting, according to the Journal

"Movements like 'work your wage' and 'quiet quitting' are very revealing of this changed mind-set for these young workers. They think that they have more bargaining power so some of them became more picky," Justine Hervé, PhD, an economist at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., told the Journal.

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