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Where Are Workers in Their Early 20s?

Most of the people who left the workforce in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic have returned—with the exception of a few groups, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription). One surprising contingent is workers in their early 20s.

What’s happening: “For people over age 15, the labor-force participation rate—the share of people employed or actively seeking a job—dropped from an average of 63.1% in 2019 to 61.7% in 2021 and recovered to 62.2% in October. But for people ages 20 to 24, participation that averaged 72.1% in 2019 stood at just 70.8% in October.”

  • Workforce participation among those over 55 is also far below pre-pandemic levels, owing largely to early retirements.

Not here, not there: “Some people in their early 20s are neither in school nor working. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental group that promotes economic growth, tracks the share of people who aren’t in employment, education or training, known as the NEET rate.”

  • “The NEET rate for U.S. workers ages 20 to 24 rose from 14.67% in 2020 to 18.27% in 2021, the highest since 2014.”

So where are they? One analysis “found workers in their early 20s who aren’t in school or the labor force overwhelmingly cited caretaking responsibilities, though the numbers hadn’t changed much since 2019.”

  • Others may be waiting for “the right” job to come along, “a luxury afforded by the ease of finding a job in the still-tight U.S. labor market” and the popularization of movements such as “work your wage” and “quiet quitting.”
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