Georgetown report: College, work experience crucial to securing a good job

Across the last few decades, young adults’ journey to attain a “good job” has grown longer and more difficult, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). In The Uncertain Pathway from Youth to a Good Job, CEW researchers explore the age at which two different cohorts—young workers born between 1946-50 (older baby boomers) and those born between 1981-85 (older millennials)—were able to secure a good job. CEW defines a good job as one that pays at least $35,000 per year and a median of $57,000 with cost-of-living adjustments for different states.

CEW found that, whereas most older baby boomers had good jobs by the time they reached their mid-20s, most older millennials hit that threshold in their early 30s. The report also emphasizes that a college degree is the surest pathway to acquiring a good job: only college-educated young workers are consistently more likely to have a good job than their counterparts in previous generations.

Bachelor’s degree crucial to quickly accessing a good job

According to the data, 80% of older millennials with a bachelor’s or postgraduate degree had a good job at age 35. The same was true for only 56% of adults with some college experience or an associate’s degree, 42% of young workers with a high school diploma, and 26% of those without a high school diploma.

This reflects the effects globalization and technological changes have had on the labor market in recent decades, says Artem Gulish, senior policy strategist and research faculty at CEW and co-author of the reports. “Previously, many young people, in particular young men, could finish high school and get a job in a factory relatively easily, or another blue-collar job,” Gulish explains to Inside Higher Ed. Today, however, many employers want their young workers to have at least a college education and additional work experience, which takes time to acquire.

Ripple effects of longer lead time

And given how the pathway to a good job has lengthened overall, combined with increasing college costs, young workers now accumulate more student debt and less wealth. Households led by 35-year-olds today have less than two-thirds the net worth than their counterparts held 20 years earlier, the report says. As a result, young adults delay buying houses and paying back their student loans, and they do not have enough emergency savings, Gulish explains to Higher Ed Dive.

Related: What will it take to close career achievement gaps? >

Race, class, and gender divides

Disparities in educational attainment across racial and ethnic groups are further compounding these gaps, CEW points out. Black and Latinx young workers have a far lower chance of having a good job by their mid-20s than white workers.

Racial and gender discrimination in the workforce also remain barriers to attaining good jobs. “Disparities in educational attainment play a bigger role in economic inequality than in the past, but equity gaps by race and gender persist even among young workers at the same education level,” Kathryn Peltier Campbell, one of the CEW report authors, said in a release.

At every education level, young women are less likely to have a good job than men within the same racial/ethnic group. “Women in particular need one more degree than men do in order to get equivalent earnings,” Peltier Campbell tells Inside Higher Ed.

Related: Want to position students for equitable post-college wages? Take a cue from the humanities. >

And racial disparities in wealth accumulation appear even among college graduates of color. Among older millennials, white men ages 25 to 35 with a high school diploma or less have a median net worth of $2,300—over 2.5 times higher than the $900 median net worth of young Black women with a bachelor’s degree or higher. In comparison, white men with a bachelor’s degree or higher have a median net worth of $36,000. Additionally, Black women are most likely to take out student loans and hold the most student loan debt among racial and gender groups.

Reforms to improve opportunities for young workers

Given these findings, CEW calls for reforms to close racial and gender gaps in economic mobility and career attainment. Those include:

  • Increasing investments in culturally responsive teaching and counseling happening across the pre-K-through-postsecondary continuum at institutions that embrace young people from different economic situations, racial/ethnic backgrounds, and communities 
  • Starting career- and work-based learning beginning in middle school, and continuing it through college, so that students have more career exposure while engaging in general education and skill-based learning
  • Making college more accessible through free-college plans, prioritization of need-based aid over merit-based aid, and reforming the student loan system
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