Good jobs are out of reach for many 20-somethings in the U.S.

Close up of job candidates sitting in chairs waiting

Bettors wouldn’t like the odds facing many young people as they enter the labor market seeking decent-paying employment. New research from Brookings Metro and Child Trends finds that nearly 60% of adults who were socioeconomically disadvantaged in their teens continue to struggle economically at age 30—facing low earnings, high poverty rates, and many barriers to employment.  

Based on annual earnings and employment-related benefits, Brookings and Child Trends researchers segmented adults from disadvantaged backgrounds into four groups. One of the groups, accounting for 22% of the study population, had average annual earnings of $4,200 at age 30 and no employment-related benefits. Another 36% had average annual earnings of $19,000 and one benefit. The two other groups were more economically comfortable: 34% had average annual earnings of $42,000 at age 30, and the last 9% had average annual earnings of $97,000.  

Two of the four groups show little to no earning growthAnother report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that the age at which the majority of young adults attain a good job has shifted from their mid-20s to early 30s. (A “good job” is defined as paying at least $35,000 per year and $57,000 at the median for workers ages 25 to 35 nationally, with adjustments based on cost-of-living differences across states.) The report also shows that only young adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are consistently more likely to have a good job than the previous generation. The majority of workers with a high school diploma or less do not attain a good job by age 35.   

These findings are stark, but when you consider the nation’s education, training, and employment policies, you can’t exactly call them a surprise. K-12 education, postsecondary education, and the workforce development system all operate in different silos—with different incentives, rules, and governance structures, and none are adequately connected to the labor market. The field of positive youth development offers effective practices for reaching young people, but they are unevenly recognized and incorporated by those charged with educating young people and preparing them for employment.  

For large shares of young people (and disproportionately those who are female, Black, and Latino or Hispanic), we have normalized a path from high school to low-wage employment, unemployment, and poverty. Less than 40% of young Black and Latino or Hispanic men in the workforce have a good job, and the likelihood of having a good job is even lower for Black and Latino or Hispanic women. In their research, Brookings Metro and Child Trends identified gender and race as significantly associated with earnings, even after controlling for other factors relevant to employment. Women had a greater probability of belonging to a lower-earning group than men, and Black people were more likely than white and Latino or Hispanic people to belong to a lower-earning group. That some groups of people are concentrated in low-paying jobs is the logical outcome of our existing policies.  

It is time to reject this pattern and create the conditions for all young people to thrive. If youth policy is meant to guide all young people to economic independence as adults, we need fundamental, comprehensive reform. We need an “all-one-system approach” that breaks down the barriers between pre-K-12 education, postsecondary education, and the labor market.

An all-one-system approach would provide young people with a smooth and flexible continuum of support throughout their education and entry into careers. It would include facets such as high-quality universal early childhood education; career exploration, guidance, and preparation starting in middle school and extending into high school and college; and more opportunities to earn college credit in high school through practices like dual enrollment. It would facilitate smoother transfers between community colleges and four-year institutions; offer more work-based learning experiences such as internships, work-study programs, and apprenticeships; and encourage more collaboration between employers and education providers. Importantly, these practices would be supported by a robust data system linking individual-level data (with privacy safeguards) from K-12, postsecondary, and employment systems, which would facilitate coordination and ensure transparency and accountability.  

There are multiple examples of creative, effective programs that model these approaches, such as Linked Learning, Year Up, Braven, Per Scholas, and Genesys Works, among others. However, these programs do not have the scale, funding, or capacity to compensate for the systemwide “triple deficits” of inadequate access to postsecondary education, limited exposure to high-quality work experience and work-based learning, and insufficient counseling to support career navigation. Systemwide reforms and policy changes at the federal, state, and local levels will be necessary to fundamentally change the equation for young people from marginalized backgrounds. 

While broad action at the federal level is unlikely in the near future, some legislators are taking steps toward an all-one-system approach. For example, the version of the America COMPETES Act that passed in the House earlier this year included a bipartisan amendment that incorporated the provisions of the College Transparency Act (supporting a more comprehensive data system) and another measure that would allow Pell Grants to be used for qualified short-term training programs. At the same time, a growing number of states and public institutions are collaborating with the U.S. Census Bureau as it expands its Post-Secondary Employment Outcomes Initiative, which will enable stakeholders to assess the employment and earnings outcomes of students who enter the national labor market. In addition, a substantial number of states are recognizing the importance of tools that expand career readiness in K-12 education, including personalized academic and career plans, career counseling, and work-based learning.  

In the long run, full commitment to an all-one-system approach is imperative for both our country’s economic competitiveness and our ability to offer equitable opportunity to all young people, including those from marginalized backgrounds. Youth and young adults deserve an equal chance to make something of their talent and potential while attaining economic security. As our respective research makes clear, we have a lot of work to do as a country to improve the odds for today’s young adults.