Skip to content

What the "great age twist" means for youth employment

Andrew Sum

Professor of Economics Andrew Sum, director of Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies, has written extensively on the youth labor market, including the Center’s annual teen summer employment report. Professor Sum regularly provides expertise to local and national media outlets on these issues, and recently, he spoke to Youth Radio and to PBS’s NewsHour on why the general public should care about teen unemployment rates. The following interview is the first in a series exploring the Center’s research findings and the impact of youth employment opportunities.

The interview was originally published on, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe, and republished by the Huffington Post.


Teen unemployment is triple the national average, but Andrew Sum, Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, says the number is actually much worse.

Unemployment figures only count people who are “actively looking for work,” but many teens and young adults, explains Sum, drop out of the labor market after repeated rejection and then aren’t counted. Sum says employment, is actually a better metric for gauging unemployment. What percentage of the population is actually working? It turns out that for 16-24 year-olds, that rate is the lowest it’s been since the end of World War II.

You may be thinking, “Yeah, so what? Kids don’t need jobs as much as adults anyway,” but Sum, who has spent his career studying youth employment, says the problem is real, unprecedented, and it affects the entire nation.

Youth Radio interviewed Sum about the importance of putting youth to work, and why the United States is missing the mark.

Youth Radio: What does it mean for young people to work? Why is it important?

Andrew Sum: The more time you spend out of school and out of work has a massive increase in the likelihood that when you’re 25-29 [years old], that A: you’re jobless, B: you’re poor, or C: you’re dependent on the government.

Teenage employment and young adult employment is characterized by something called path dependency. The likelihood that you work next year is substantially influenced by how much you work this year. If you didn’t work last year, the likelihood of you working this year is less than 10%.

YR: How does youth employment today compare to youth employment thirty years ago?

AS: The best starting point would be 2000…The one fact that stands out more than anything is that we [the U.S.] didn’t create any jobs for an entire decade…The effect of that on the labor market was dramatic with the most important characteristic being age. We underwent the great age twist in American labor markets.

YR: Can you describe the age twist?

AS: If you were under 57, you were less likely to be working last year than you were in 2000. If you were older than 57, you were more likely to be working last year than in 2000. Our youngest workers, 16-24, were thrown out of the labor market by the largest margin. Normally kids get an above average share of the job gains, that was the way we worked as a country up until 2000.

YR: You cite that young workers earn an average of 30% less today than they did in 1973. Can you tell me why that is?

AS: In manufacturing and construction, the share of young people who started out there diminished. There’s been a loss of unionization and much less training on the job for both men and women.

YR: The last couple months we’ve been talking recovery. The numbers look better than they did a year or two ago.

AS: For most everybody that’s absolutely true. Since the end of 2009, we’ve created 5.4 million jobs for America’s workers, [but] teenagers got minus 14 thousand of them. They did not get a single net new job. In fact, there are fewer teens working today than when the recovery began.

YR: Is there anything else you want to say?

AS: I’m tired of writing about the downfall. I’d like to write a report called “Recovery Return: The Turnaround In The Youth Labor Market.” I’m looking at a report we just did two months ago, “The Dismal State of the Nation’s Teen Summer Job Market.”

Putting kids to work today is going to improve employability tomorrow. The more work you’ve done, the more likely it is that an employer is going to train you on the job because he believes that you know what work is about. When you come in with nothing on your resume, then the employer says “How can I risk it? You don’t even know what work is like.” [If we employ young people], we end up with a better trained workforce and a more productive workforce. GDP will go up.

— By Ashley Williams

More Stories

Photo of the Capitol Building at night

High stakes for politics, SCOTUS in 2018

Photo of the crashed truck that was used in the October 31st attack in Manhattan.

Weaponizing Language: How the meaning of “allahu akbar” has been distorted

Northeastern logo

Why I love studying Spanish