Wonks have zeroed in on a detail of last Friday's lackluster jobs report and a recent report from the Urban Institute to discuss a notable data point: a small decline in the number of twentysomething women entering the workforce. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas of the Washington Post write, "In particular, [labor force entry has] suffered among women — and it's really suffered among young women — who are a lot less likely to enter the labor force than they were in 2002 and 2003."
The question is: why?
As Papa Kwaku Osei at Quartz writes, "The labor force participation rate hasn't been falling because of discouraged workers, but because the very people who used to look for jobs are now choosing to go to college. And most of them are female millennials." This is interesting from the perspective of the jobs report, but let's not lose the bigger picture: the trend toward higher college enrollment among women dwarfs the decline in labor force participation. Indeed, while the Quartz slug reads "opt out," these women are actually doubling down.
This investment in education makes sound economic sense. While the youth unemployment rate has remained high, post-recession, the more education you have the more likely you are to work. "For those [aged 16-24] with less than a high school diploma, 14 percent worked full-time, compared to 66 percent with a bachelor's degree or higher," notes Diana G. Carew at the Progressive Policy Institute.
Indeed, when you look at the rate at which young women have flocked to college in the last ten years, and compare it with the rate at which they're delaying entry into the workforce, you realize that most of these women are working and attending college at the same time.
This raises a bigger question. Why does our monthly jobs conversation cover such a paltry part of the picture? It's well known, at this point, that the headline unemployment rate only covers those who are actively seeking work — thus, discouraged job-seekers aren't even counted. For a fuller picture you have to dig deeper into the Bureau of Labor Statistics' monthly report to get at "alternative measures of labor utilization" such as U-5 and U-6 unemployment. Most media coverage of the jobs report still mentions only the headline number, although the pieces cited above are good examples of trying to get beyond it.
But even nuanced coverage struggles to get beyond the measurement limitations of the jobs report. It doesn't cover those who are either actively improving their marketable skills in college (and most of the women in college are not studying liberal arts topics at $40,000-a-year universities, but studying pharmacy or medical technology or other immediately practical subjects at more reasonably priced community colleges). It also doesn't include people who are actively contributing to GDP by working as volunteers or interns — roles that have become increasingly attractive to cost-cutting companies, and to experience-desperate would-be workforce entrants.
The employment picture for America's twentysomethings is grim enough, with a youth unemployment rate that has been in the double digits since 2008. That's a pretty big hurdle to overcome whether you are female or male.
But perhaps the lesson we should be taking from this "nontroversial" jobs report is that the news isn't all bad. In fact, some of what looks like bad news might actually be a sensible investment in the future, when there are few other options on the table.