March 11, 2014

Young people not working reflects cocooning, not economic factors

Here is an article on labor force participation rates among young people, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

We all know that young people these days aren't as eager to work as they used to be, but how far back does that go? And is their non-participation due to economic factors such as rising inequality and related trends, or to social factors like cocooning?

The data for 20-24 year-olds goes back to 1948, and up through 2013. The cycles for inequality and status-striving, as studied most in-depth by Peter Turchin, are independent of the cycles for cocooning and crime. This is great because with a long-enough period of data, we can test and see which of the two cycles a certain phenomenon maps onto. Here is the graph from the article; click to enlarge.

The Great Compression, from the 1920s through some time in the 1970s, saw the top falling and the bottom rising within the economic pyramid. It was easier to get jobs (aside from the Great Depression), they paid better at the bottom and median, and young people were not status-strivers who planned to go through a lengthy credentialing process before getting their first job.

And yet that does not show up in the picture above, which is only for young people. The late '40s and most of the '50s show falling or stagnant levels of labor force participation. It's not until the later '50s that things start to steadily increase, and they continue up up up through a peak in the late '80s. Since the early '90s, it's been almost all downhill, notwithstanding a hiccup in the late '90s.

Those movements map more closely onto the cocooning vs. outgoing social mood. Getting your first job as a young adult is one of those things that isn't too hard to set up, provided you don't mind leaving the security of home life.

Shoot, in outgoing periods, youngsters not only do not mind, they are damn eager to head off on the path toward independence from parental discipline. Plus you get to meet new people on the job, at least your co-workers and perhaps customers as well if you're in that line of work. Sure, you'll meet some retards and assholes, but you've got to take the good with the bad, right? You'll add new acquaintances, romantic partners, confidants, and activity buddies.

And -- somebody you can blow off steam to. I think a large part of the anxiety that grips a cocooning society is not having anyone you can vent to throughout the day. A little vent here and a little vent there, keeps the pressure from building up too much. Especially when the listener has gone through the same frustration. It lets you know you're not the only one in a bind, and you get to laugh it off. "Another old lady holding up the line to write out a check..." "Lady bosses, eh?" "Paper jam again? Sometimes I think we're all part of some sick psychology experiment..."

However, all of those benefits of working -- aside from the material ones -- require you to be open to interacting with other people. For folks in a cocooning society, that starts to feel like too heavy of a price to pay. "Ugh -- other people." For older adults, they're just going to have to suck it up, which is why the economic inequality cycle shows a rosy picture for workers overall during the Great Compression, despite a good chunk of it taking place during the cocooning Mid-century.

But the Silent Gen youngsters didn't have to sink or swim like the Greatest Gen adults did during the Mid-century. They could indulge their preference for social isolation for a little while longer before taking the plunge into the work force.

This is one of the hardest things to keep straight when looking at history -- that even though there is a prevailing zeitgeist, it influences and is influenced by different generations in different ways. Baby Boomers and Gen X did not have the same experiences in the '80s, even controlling for their age difference. During a cocooning period, a generation whose upbringing was fairly social will weather the storm better than a generation that is a product of cocooning and over-parenting.

Finally, I realize that more 20-24 year-olds are in higher ed today than during the good old days, but that doesn't explain what's going on either. The higher ed bubble began circa 1980, so if studying rather than working is the cause, the graph should show a dip during the '80s, when in reality it shows a rise toward the peak. College students back then studied and had a part-time job. By the early 2000s, I remember feeling weird for having a 15-20 hour job during junior and senior year of college, as most of our peers not only did not work, but were not even interested in it.

Furthermore, going to college these days is not a demanding thing that would eat into work time. Grade inflation means you'll pass all your courses. If you paid for the credits, you'll get the credits -- that's how the administration views customer service and growing its consumer base. It's mostly a screw-off time. Not, however, in a social way -- visit any college these days, other than the most hardcore party schools, and you'll be struck by how atomized the student body is. And how they like it that way. "Other people -- um, cuh-reeepy!" Rather, they're all plugged into their phones, laptops, or video games.

Spending time in higher ed when you are not intending to secure, or are not cut out for an academic job, is just as much an outlet for cocooning as it is a grab for higher status through credentialing.

Related post: Did you have a job as a kid? My first job was at age 10, during the summer of 1991. In '92 and '93, I got lasso-ed into splitting the labor (and the pay) with my best friend who had a paper route. Looking at the graph above, this couldn't have lasted long for kids that age.


  1. I worked every summer once I turned 15 and throughout the school year after I turned 16, I think. My dad wouldn't let me not work, lol. A debilitating social anxiety makes it hard, but I sucked (and continue to suck) it up.

  2. I got a job as a Paperboy when I was 11. Delivered papers every morning before school until I was 14. In my town most people subscribed to one of the daily papers and the weekly paper. When I was 12 the other daily newspaper went bankrupt , so I doubled my business overnight. By the 1990s they could no longer find boys to deliver newspapers and adults took over all the routes.

    at 15 I foolishly took a job at an auto-body shop, because I wanted to fix up the 1972 convertible I had bought. Working at the bodyshop destroyed my desire to work on my car, the pay was good but it was hard work. Did it for 2 summers, and worked as a busboy at night my last 2 years of high school. On the weekends I worked as a caddy. By the time I graduated High School I had saved up over $10,000 which was enough to pay for my first 2 years of college tuition at the State University. Muscle cars gained value quickly between 1985 when i bought my car and 1992 (my last year in college) , so I sold the car my senior year to help pay my college expenses. Sold it for $4,000 in 1992, I had bought it for $2,000 in 1985 1 month before I turned 16. Bought a cheep car for $500 and delivered Pizza during my last year at college. Also worked as a waiter, cook, lifeguard, at UPS, ...

  3. Could it also be that there are fewer jobs out there for young people? Illegal immigrants are doing the unskilled jobs that white American kids used to do in the 70s and 80s.

  4. "Illegal immigrants are doing the unskilled jobs that white American kids used to do in the 70s and 80s."

    That's making it worse, but it doesn't look like the main factor. Back in the late '40s and '50s, immigration had been turned off for decades, yet young people working was at a low point. Immigration started going up after the 1965 amnesty, and even more during the '70s and '80s, yet young people's labor participation rate only climbed.

    In places where immigrants cannot compete, you'd expect to see a glut of white youngsters -- like, "Finally, a job that can't be stolen by a Mexican!" But you don't see them there either.

    Shoveling snow during winter, for instance. Mexicans love lawn maintenance, but they don't go schlepping around the neighborhood with snow shovels or a snow thrower. My best friend and I used to do that on weekends or during Christmas vacation, charging I think $5-10 in the mid-'90s.

    Bryan Caplan, the aspergers / libertarian economist at EconLog, wrote a post a few years ago about how he couldn't find any neighborhood teenagers to shovel the avalanche of snow that had fallen during a blizzard. He said he would've paid them something like $30 or $50 just so he could drive the car.

    That's what happens when the kids themselves don't want to go making cold calls door-to-door ("Ummm... awkward!"), and when their parents require line-of-sight supervision 24/7.

    Also remember that most of the country is not swarmed with immigrants. Yet they don't work like their counterparts would have 20-30 years ago.

  5. Looks like a rise all the way from 1954 to 1980, then a plateau, then a fall at 2000.

    I wonder what the male and female rates separated out look like?

    I bet the male participation in the mid century is much higher than today, and maybe during the "outgoing" period, while the female is much lower.

    I've a hunch the difference between the 1980s and the 1950s is mostly gonna be due to girls getting paid employment, while the difference between the post 1980s and 1990s world and today is gonna be due to immigration and education trends.

  6. I think it's a little bit of both.

    Before the 21st when college was affordable, working a part time or summer job could more easily cover the costs. I imagine that being able to cover your costs for such a thing provides a sense of self-worth so there's extra motivation to work. Progressive credentialism has created inflated tuition costs so there's no sense of satisfaction in working a shitty job when the wages derived from it hardly make a dent.

    Increases in minimum wage and the automation of low skill jobs has also negatively impacted youth workforce participation.

  7. The economist Tyler Cowen recently explicitly linked lower productivity with the "60s, 70s, 80s". He specifically mentioned those three decades, and also ties the lower productivity to helicopter-parenting and "staying at home". Think he's taking an uncredited cue from your blog, or just independently came up with the same ideas?

    "All of this is causing the U.S. to stagnate economically and politically, Cowen says in his new book: "The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream." Growth is far slower than it was in the 1960s, 70s and 80s and productivity growth is way down, despite everyone claiming they are working so hard."

    " "Just look at how people bring up children today. Often they won't even let children go outside," he says.

    Even technology, the one area that has seen some innovation in recent years, has been mostly aimed at making us want to stay home and relax.

    "Tech's great. It's fun. I've got four Amazon packages outside my door. But we have a problem with this precisely because it's enjoyable and comfortable," he says. "All this tech innovation encourages leisure and staying at home."

  8. Absolutely fascinating article and comment thread on AutoAdmit about teens delaying developmental milestones. So many interesting comments in this article.

  9. I started that ball rolling 10 years ago (on GNXP), and it just keeps growing.

    Somewhat related: Toys R Us files for bankruptcy, not due to Amazon, since it was already in trouble when it got bought out in 2005. And not due to Walmart, since the toy section in Walmart is pretty small. But nobody who writes articles has ever been inside a Walmart, or has children to buy toys for.

    Instead, it's helicopter parents sheltering their kids from any physical activity in physical reality. They want them to be as immaterial and angelic / spirit-like as possible. The closest thing is becoming passive receptacles of digital content, none of which needs to be purchased at a toy store.

    Toys are too physical, too material, and too activity-oriented. Throwing footballs, riding bikes, enacting feuds and fights with action figures, feeding and changing the diaper of a baby doll, combing the hair of a unicorn. It's all just one step away from them leaving the home, getting corrupted by sex, and having to physically protect themselves and their property.

  10. "Toys are too physical, too material, and too activity-oriented."

    also, as you said before, it requires imagination to create storylines for the action figures. in that case, many children may desire toys less(can't think of things to do with them); not just being denied it by their parents.

  11. Yep, every time I see an article like this you come to mind. The whole cocooning thing is fascinating to me.

    I agree with you. It's interesting how many older folks believe teens now are having more sex now than ever. That couldn't be less true. And also, many people think violence is up, when overall, it has been declining since '92.

    I hope Toys 'R' Us sticks around...I have a lot of great memories of that place.

    How do you feel about all the talk surrounding football as being dangerous to youths?

  12. Another link you'd be interested in:

    Article mentions lack of partying and even just hanging out with friends amongst the "i-Gen" cohort - those born after 1995.


  13. "Article mentions lack of partying and even just hanging out with friends amongst the "i-Gen" cohort - those born after 1995."

    These people will likely take on some of the characteristics you see in Silents and early Boomers; you spend 10-30 years at the start of your life in a cocooning period, then when cocooning ebbs you become gullible, "open to experience", and start to earnestly make up for a dull upbringing by racing in the opposite direction toward adventure and hedonism.

    For those of us who grew up in the 70's, 80's, and event to some extent the 90's, we already did a lot of hanging out and fooling around. When Cocooning starts to ebb in the next few years, it might feel like an old friend is paying us a visit. But to those born in the the late 80's, 90's, and 2000's, this new era will feel like a novelty.....One that has it's pleasures and it's pains.....


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."