Rocky Pathways From Youth to a Good Job

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Chase Report Page Img 1 MinGeorgetown University Center on Education and the WorkforceGeorgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) released two new reports that showed how by age 35, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher are nearly twice as likely as workers with just a high school diploma to land a good job. Yet race, class, and gender disparities compound inequalities on the uneven journey to good jobs as well as wealth.

“We found the story of millennials transitioning to the workforce is more nuanced than people usually describe it,” said Kathryn Campbell, associate director of editorial policy and senior editor/writer at CEW as well as one of the report’s authors. “If you have a bachelor’s degree, you’re in a pretty strong position relative to baby boomers at those same ages. But for all other groups without a bachelor’s degree, there is more of a lag. And that lag really has implications for how firm your footing is in economic independence.”

The two reports came out of CEW’s “The Uncertain Pathway from Youth to a Good Job,” which is funded by a philanthropy investment from JPMorgan Chase. One of the reports looked at how the pathway from youth to adult economic independence has shifted across generations. The second report unpacked persistent opportunity gaps among demographic groups, especially by race and gender.

The reports defined a good job as paying at least $35,000 per year and $57,000 at the median nationwide for young workers, or those ages 25 to 35. According to the reports, about 80% of older millennials with a bachelor’s degree or higher had a good job at age 35, compared with 56% of those with some college or an associate’s degree, 42% of those with just a high school diploma, and 26% of people with less than a high school diploma.

One of the report’s authors, Artem Gulish, senior policy strategist and research faculty at CEW, pointed out how race, gender, and ethnicity—in addition to education level—shape pathways to a good job. And even then, a good job does not mean wealth. 

“What we are seeing is that discrimination in society basically continues to play a role,” said Gulish.

For example, the median net worth of young white men with no more than a high school diploma is more than 2.5 times that of young Black women with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Black women have disproportionately high student debt loads, the reports note, which contributes to a wealth gap. Bias in the workforce further play into pay and promotion inequities for Black women.

Young women overall also have higher levels of postsecondary education than young men. But at every education level, young women are still less likely to have a good job than young men in the same racial or ethnic group, according to the reports.

“A person can make all of the ‘right choices’ to get on the pathway to a good job and still find themselves in a place where they don’t have a good job,” said Campbell. “We’d like people to apply this data to expand options for equal opportunity so that people can find themselves in a job that allows them to have the lives they want to live.”

Researchers stressed the long-term consequences for young people having a slow journey to good jobs. Such consequences include delaying homeownership, marriage, childbirth, and independent living. Campbell pointed out that CEW thinks of the earnings and net worth outcomes “not just as money for the sake of money but for the life you want.”

To Nyema Mitchell, director with the advancement unit of Jobs for the Future (JFF), a nonprofit focused on making the American workforce and education systems more equitable, the findings on racial and gender inequities were particularly striking.

“Something has to be different than what we are currently doing,” said Mitchell. “Because yes, more education resulted in an improvement of wages over time for all groups. But for some, that increase was a lot more—and not so much for others. To me, this is an indicator of a larger systemic problem that just getting more education hasn’t yet solved. This is why we need policy changes that are targeted for specific groups.”

She stressed improving career counseling for young people with an attention to the structural barriers certain groups face. Part of that work involves building counselors’ cultural competence to help students consider their career goals and earnings in the long run.

Dr. Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, added that the results of these reports on the overall importance of getting a bachelor’s degree to land a good job still probably hold in the long-term. But they may have less hold in the short-term in today’s tight labor market. 

“Over the last two years, it’s been easier to get a job paying $18 or $20 an hour without a college education,” said Kelchen. “So, you could be making about $40,000 a year. The big question is what happens when the next recession hits. Will those good jobs that don’t require a college education stick around? Historically, they haven’t.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.