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Last hired, first fired? Employment losses across age groups

Trends in 30 years of BLS employment data

The COVID-19-related recession has been especially brutal, and its effects have been unevenly distributed. One example of disparity is employment among different age groups.

The FRED graph above shows that the youngest workers were by far the worst hit: From February to April 2020, 35% of the 16- to 19-year-olds and 30% of the 20- to 24-year-olds lost their jobs. The other age categories lost a lot, too—from 11% to 16%—but much less than the youngest cohorts. While all age groups recuperated to some extent by August, the gap is still considerable.

Are the young taking one for the team just for this recession? Or have they always been first to be let go? Let’s look at the past three recessions. The second graph, which covers the period of the Financial Crisis, also shows that the youngest group was hit distinctly and persistently, while the 55 and older group actually gained employment.

The 2001 recession, which was much milder than the two we just looked at, tells the same story in the graph above: big employment losses for the youngest group and slight increases for the 45- to 54-year-old group. And below, the 1990-91 recession looks much like the 2001 recession.

All in all, it appears “normal” that the 16- to 19-year-old age group is hit hardest by recessions and that the oldest workers are largely unaffected, at least in terms of employment. The current recession is a little different in that the older groups have also been affected, just not as much as the younger groups.

How these graphs were created: Start from Table A-9 of the Current Population Survey, select the series you want shown, and click “Add to Graph.” From the “Edit Graph” panel, select units “Index” with the start of the current recession and click “Apply to All.” Adjust the sample period. For the other graphs, adjust the index date and sample periods.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.

View on FRED, series used in this post: LNS12000012, LNS12000036, LNS12000089, LNS12000091, LNS12000093, LNS12024230

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