Underemployment isn’t a ‘myth’ for recent college grads

As readers of this blog are well aware, the labor market remains in terrible shape in the aftermath of the worst downturn since the Great Depression; this is evident in a wide array of economic data and is not disputed in the economics profession. Graduating into said labor market (in which the level of voluntary quits remains weak) with little to no work experience or wage history isn’t an enviable position, as my colleagues Heidi Shierholz, Natalie Sabadish, and Hilary Wething detail in their new paper The Class of 2012: Labor market for young graduates remains grim. Which is why I was flabbergasted by Abigail Johnson’s and Tammy NiCastro’s recent Forbes.com blog post Get Over It: The Truth About College Grad ‘Underemployment.’ Their title is plenty revealing, but here’s the gist of their argument:

“In recent weeks, there have been a slew of articles that reported how difficult things will be for this year’s college graduates because they can expect to be unemployed or “underemployed” … It’s not clear where the concept of being “underemployed” came from. But it’s damaging and counterproductive.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) U-6 Alternative Measure of Labor Underutilization—often referred to as the underemployment rate—is not a myth. It’s defined as such: “Unemployed, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force.” EPI’s State of Working America website even tracks it on a monthly basis across educational attainment, gender, and race and ethnicity. Here’s what it looks like by educational attainment:

Not a pretty picture. Since the onset of the recession more than four years ago, underemployment has roughly doubled across all educational attainment levels (a clear indicator that the economy suffers from a sheer lack of aggregate demand—the economy is running $853 billion below potential output—rather than “structural” employment problems). With so much excess slack in the labor market, employers have all the bargaining power, hence anemic wage growth and the “employed part time for economic reasons” (i.e., involuntarily) part of the underemployment rate. Horatio Alger can’t set his hours worked—there simply aren’t enough hours of work being demanded in the depressed economy.

And as Shierholz, Sabadish, and Wething detail, it looks much, much worse for recent high school and college graduates entering the labor market. Over the last year, the unemployment rate averaged 31.1 percent for recent high school graduates and 9.4 percent for recent college graduates. The underemployment rates averaged 54 percent and 19.1 percent, respectively. High unemployment and underemployment, and accompanying depressed earnings early in career, will result in long-term economic scarring, particularly diminishing lifetime earnings. Beyond underemployment as measured by the BLS, skills/education-based underemployment (so called “cyclical-downgrading”) will contribute to lifetime earnings scarring; as my colleagues note, “entering the labor market in a severe downturn can lead to reduced earnings, greater earnings instability, and more spells of unemployment over the next 10 to 15 years.”

In suggesting that college grads should be grateful to take a job at Starbucks because they aren’t “entitled” to anything more, the authors blithely overlook that recent college graduates working at Starbucks part-time for economic reasons are likely displacing hours from someone with lower educational attainment. This is in no way an indictment of any such recent graduates. This is to say what’s truly damaging and counterproductive is economically illiterate “thought pieces” breeding complacency about the state of the labor market and the policy response to the Great Recession. Neither a college degree nor government can guarantee recent grads “good jobs” or full-time employment, but between the Great Depression and the Great Recession, government prioritized stabilizing the economy and targeting full employment—to the benefit of workers of all educational attainment levels. Underemployment of recent graduates is not a myth being cooked up to breed entitlement as the authors imply; it’s a reality and tragic failure of policymakers to address the jobs crisis.