The report by Brookings’s Hamilton Project, “Employment, Education, and the Time Use of American Youth,” said: “The decline is largest among teens [ages 16 to 19], whose labor force participation rate fell from roughly half to a third of the population from 2000 to 2018.” Job participation among young adults (20-24) dropped by 7.7 percentage points.
Yet the reason for this is a pleasant surprise in an era of gloomy data about young people not reaching their potential. The decrease in youth labor force participation “has been predominantly driven by an increase [my emphasis] in school enrollment and time spent on education-related activities,” the report said.
The authors, Lauren Bauer, Emily Moss, Ryan Nunn and Jay Shambaugh, said “while declines in labor force participation mean lower output in the present, these patterns suggest unrealized future gains — unlike declines in prime-age labor force participation or declines experienced during economic slowdowns.”
Apparently, our kids are not disappointing us. Here is another surprise. Although screen time (something I complain about often) has represented a greater proportion of leisure time in recent years, youths are not more likely to engage in leisure overall today than in the 1990s, the report said.
I may have failed to mention other good news about that age group. High school graduation rates are improving, making entrance to college more likely, although that is probably in part because schools have made graduation easier with credit recovery courses and other shortcuts. Also, from 2000 to 2017, enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions jumped from 13.2 million to 16.8 million students.
The Brookings researchers said the largest contribution to the decline in the proportion of young Americans in the workforce “is a decrease in the share of youth simultaneously working and in school, both during the academic year and during the summer.”
The movement from work and toward school is not driven by any one ethnic group, but the shift was largest for Hispanic youth, the report said. “The share of male Hispanic youth enrolled in school but not participating in the labor force increased by 13.7 percentage points from 2000 to 2018,” it said. “For young female Hispanic youth in school the share increased by 12.1 percentage points.”
Could this increased study by teenagers be part of a wider trend? I have long been troubled by how little homework is done by high school students. I don’t share the widespread concern over academic stress. That may be a problem in affluent, college-conscious communities like Bethesda, Md., Winnetka, Ill., or Saratoga, Calif. But most American high schools make few demands.
The best available data, from the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, shows 15- to 17-year-olds on average spending only four hours and 59 minutes on homework each week. That is 43 minutes a night.
That data is old, dating to 2003. The Michigan people say they have not yet updated their numbers. From 1982 to 2003, homework time for all students increased 80 percent. That same increase for the last 19 years would, if it happened, bring average teenage nightly homework to one hour and 17 minutes. That’s better but still much less than the time they spend watching TV or on their phones.
One other thing caught my eye in the Brookings report. After all my complaining about screen time, the report revealed that adults 65 years and older spend more than 1½ hours more looking at screens than 16- to 19-year-olds do each day.
Can that be? Maybe. I am writing this on a screen. The Brookings researchers have revealed that teenagers are making an effort to better use their time. We should all follow their example.