PHILADELPHIA — Chris Cocchi is nearly 27 years old, unemployed, living at home in the Philadelphia exurbs with his dad, and spending a good chunk of his day on the computer.
But he isn’t playing video games.
Instead, the West Chester, Pa., resident – who has worked most recently as a line cook – spends most of his time on Craigslist, hoping to find the career listing that will break the cycle of dead-end jobs and unemployment – and pay well enough for him to move out and maybe go back to school.
“For most opportunities, they want the college degree and five years of experience,” said a frustrated Cocchi. “They only want the cream of the crop.”
But his misery has a lot of company.
The number of young adults in their 20s without jobs is the highest since record-keeping began after World War II, and their bleak outlook has barely improved even as the broader U.S. economy has seen a jump in new hiring in recent months. For those like Cocchi, a young male with no college training, the 2010s have hit like a neutron bomb.
“I’ve never seen the world so bad for young people. The only way I can describe it is as a Great Depression,” said Andrew Sum, head of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University, who has studied young-adult unemployment in depth.
The statistics are grim. Only 55 percent of Americans in the 16-to-29 age bracket were working in 2010, down dramatically from 67 percent in 2000, but Sum said that the situation is even worse than those numbers indicate. That’s because millions of young adults are also underemployed, working part-time while looking for a full-time job. Sum calls that “mal-employed,” which means holders of college degrees working low-end jobs.
A virtual cottage industry has sprung up diagnosing what’s wrong with America’s 20-somethings. Magazine covers and cable-TV segments portray this generation as hopeless slackers, addicted to their Xbox and their Doritos Locos Tacos but unwilling to get married, start a career or move out of Mom’s attic.
Studies do confirm that today’s American youth indeed marry later and move into their own places later.
But some 20-somethings, especially those from the blue-collar middle class, say the delayed start of “real adulthood” wasn’t their idea. Paraphrasing the U.S. president of their childhood, they say: It’s the economy, stupid.
Just ask Elijah Little, 22, of Upper Darby, Pa., who left one job to take what he thought was a better one: loading trucks at a warehouse in suburban Phoenixville, Pa. Instead, his new bosses laid him off after just a month.
“They said that the economy was slow and they were overloaded, and because I hadn’t completed my 90-day probation I was going to be the first to go,” said Little, who has been aggressively looking for work since, to no avail.
Little, who graduated from a cyber-school after attending Upper Darby High, lives at home, where he helps take care of his 80-year-old grandfather. He’d started taking classes at Delaware County Community College, but completing an associate degree takes the kind of money and time that he doesn’t have.
Experts say one reason the recent economy has been so awful for people in their 20s, and especially for young men with less education, is a mismatch of skills.
The jobs that were hammered the hardest after the 2008 economic crisis and that have been the slowest to bounce back have been manufacturing and construction, traditionally the province of men with only a high-school education. The sectors that held up the best, such as education and health care, attract more of the college-educated, especially women.
Northeastern’s Sum said the formula is simple: Jobs are harder to find if you are younger, meaning joblessness is worse for 19-year-olds than 29-year-olds; if you are less educated; and if you are male. And the so-called Great Recession greatly accelerated the problem.
That’s because older workers who saw their nest egg suddenly vanish were slow to retire, while middle-aged employees were less likely to take risks and leave their steady job. The end result has been a massive pileup for those clamoring to enter the career ladder on the bottom rung.