Reports / Reports

The Future of Youth Employment

The workplace landscape for disadvantaged youth in the United States is more precarious than it has been at any other time in the past eighty years. According to a June 2013 report by the Center for American Progress, 22.5 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 are unemployed, and 1.4 million teens are neither enrolled in school nor working. Young people in general can have a hard time positioning themselves with employers due to age, shortage of experience and maturity, and lack of education and skills. Certain sub-populations face even greater barriers due to factors including race, sex, and socioeconomic status.

These challenges are heightened during an economic downturn. They are heightened right now as well by the fact that the basic nature of work is in a state of flux. Smart algorithms and networked robotics are transforming the meaning of work. Online labor markets like oDesk and the growth of sharing economy platforms hint toward fewer full-time jobs. Automation is increasingly displacing workers from routine manufacturing and service jobs. Many entry-level jobs and minimum-wage tasks are on their way out, if not already gone. On top of all that, the school-to-work pipeline doesn’t function like it used to—a college degree is no longer a surefire ticket to a good job.

Whether caused by a sluggish economy, technological drivers, or lack of preparation, unemployment creates lasting difficulties for youth and for the country’s economy as a whole. As the Center for American Progress report makes clear, if America’s youth-unemployment crisis is not adequately addressed, “businesses will consequently suffer from reduced consumer demand, and taxpayers will feel the impact in the form of lost revenues, greater demand for more government-provided services such as health care, increased crime, and more welfare payments.” With these threats looming, businesses along with nonprofits, educational institutions, and government agencies cannot afford to let a large percentage of an entire generation lose out on all the benefits that come from working—the earnings, the experience, the self-esteem, and the skills development.

To address the present crisis in employment for disadvantaged youth, IFTF, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, held a workshop in August 2014 with professionals in hiring services, city government, education, corporate HR, and labor market research. Our goal was to envision a successful working future for these vulnerable youth, the population at greatest risk of being displaced by the changes under way. Our insights from the workshop are presented in this report.

The report uses the alternative scenarios methodology developed at the University of Hawaii to envision four archetypal futures: growth, collapse, constraint, and transformation. We list key elements of each and describe how each would look for organizations and individuals. Each scenario is dramatized by a fictional story of a future worker, followed by a set of signals—local innovations or disruptions that are already happening and have the potential to grow in scale and geographic distribution. Each scenario concludes with (1) key strategies that can be used by corporate employers and third parties concerned with promoting workforce preparedness and development for youth, and (2) policy recommendations for government.