This story is part of a multi-part series in collaboration with the UCLA Labor Center on labor issues affecting Los Angeles, California and the nation. Read a testimonial from a young worker here
As we rev up toward the 2016 presidential election, the growth of the U.S. economy is likely to take top priority in the upcoming debates as we slowly push through the aftermath of the 2008 Recession that impacted so many Americans across all demographic sectors. Though escalating job rates are constantly measured against dropping unemployment as markers of economic growth, a closer look at the state of employed Americans will reflect a less celebratory or confident stance. Wages stagnate despite the rising cost of living and massive debt plagues Americans today.
Amidst this historic economic turmoil and its aftermath, a new generation of Americans has come of age. Much mentioned but little understood, Millennials have been depicted with condescension and mild contempt, both in their over-romanticization as driven, hyper-accomplished mavericks (think a nation of Zuckerbergs) or as self-centered, over-privileged brats (selfie-obsessed, Miley Ciruses and Kendall Jenners).
Nationwide, workers ages 18-35 constitute one-third of the American workforce and their median wage has fallen in every industry except for healthcare, according to an analysis of the Census Bureau Current Population Survey by Tom Allison and Konrad Muggleston. Top industries for young workers include retail, restaurants and bars (hospitality), and health care. A recent study by the UCLA Labor Center provides a more focused perspective on young workers in L.A. County. Their report shows that in L.A., a glittering symbol of promise and opportunity, Millennials make up a significant portion of the low-wage workforce and a bear a sizable burden of underemployment and unemployment. According to the study, young workers, ages 18-29 make up a quarter of L.A. County's labor force yet represent 40% of low wage workers. Low wage is defined as two-thirds of the median hourly rate for full time employment.
During the Recession, young workers were often the first to be layed off, the last to be re-hired, as their jobs were re-assigned to older workers anxious to get back to work. They have since recovered the slowest as they return to work in low-wage industries that have remained doggedly low-wage.
In his article in The Atlantic, writer Derek Thompson, suggests that the wages of young people may have stagnated because the Recession devastated industries that typically hired young workers, leaving behind an idle mass of workers willing to take on low-paying work: "As ranks of young unemployed and underemployed Millennials pile up, companies around the country know they can attract applicants without raising starter wages."
Yet despite these stark facts, the economic behavior of Millennials continues to baffle older generations (Millennials seem to refuse to move out of their parents' homes, start savings accounts, have kids of their own or buy homes, just to name a few). This generational disconnect seems to come from a decidedly myopic view of the economic conditions faced by young workers. The UCLA Labor Center study took race, ethnicity and gender into account. One of its most (non)startling figures shows that Latinos and Black young workers have higher rates of low-wage employment with 66.5% of Latinos and 55.5% of Black young workers working low-wage jobs. Of all low-wage young workers Latino men comprise 36% while Latina women make up 28% and White women constitute 10%. Undocumented workers constitute 15% of all low wage workers.
Contrary to popular notions that young people work for extra pocket money for their personal leisure (presumably to buy the newest iPhone iteration) and expect parents to provide the basics like housing and food, young workers in L.A. that live at home often provide an essential part of the family income or pay for most of their own expenses including college. Many times, rising housing costs prevent them from moving out. And though young people are generally waiting longer to have children and/or get married, 20% of young workers in LA County are parents.
Stephanie Alejandra is a young worker and student that attends community college and works as a barista in L.A. She struggles to pay for college because she can't count on her parents' financial support as they struggle to pay off debt. The life of a working student can be complicated, and inconsistent shifts only makes life more difficult, as many young workers are prone to experience.
Compounded to these and other challenges is the typical Southern California reality of the grueling daily commute as thousands of workers leave their working class suburbs to their jobs. The report notes that 7% of young workers commute to LA from other counties such as Orange and San Bernardino. Any long-distance commuter will surely know the economic impact of this reality (not to mention its gradual corrosion on one's general well-being).
And despite growing job creation, the unemployment figures for the young remain bleak. 2 out of 5 unemployed workers in LA is a young person with young black workers experiencing the highest unemployment of all workers at 28.4%
Even workers that start at low-wages see little promise in the higher rungs of some career ladders. For example, a young woman making a sandwich for you at Subway, known as a frontline worker, is likely to be a low-wage earner with 71.4% of frontline workers earning low wages. If she aspires to be a manager, or a supervisor, the promise of a high wage wanes with 47.3% of supervisors and 27.8% of managers earning low wages as well. Choose another career ladder, you say? Perhaps. However, one should remember that young workers with little work experience typically find jobs in low-wage industries.
According to Sophia Cheng of the Restaurant Opportunity Center, in addition to the immediate disadvantages, in the long run, young workers whose early work experiences are defined by low-wage with little or no indication of meaningful upward economic mobility in addition to labor violations (unpaid sick time or overtime) are socialized to accept these conditions as normal, setting the standard for future jobs. In other words, the pattern for low wage and poor work conditions is often set from a young work age.
Amidst current movements to raise the minimum wage at city, county and state levels in California, the UCLA Labor Center hopes that their findings will raise awareness for economic equality for young people as well.