Young Women Are Dropping Out of School and Work. Is Caregiving the Culprit?
“We’re not talking about how the caregiving crisis is impacting the learning loss for kids and how it’s disproportionately impacting girls and girls of color.”
— Reshma Saujani, chief executive and founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code
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A year into the pandemic, there are signs that the American economy is stirring back to life, with a falling unemployment rate and a growing number of people back at work. Even mothers — who left their jobs in droves in the last year in large part because of increased caregiving duties — are slowly re-entering the work force.
But young Americans — particularly women 16 to 24 — are living an altogether different reality, with higher rates of unemployment than older adults, and many thousands, possibly even millions, postponing their education, which can delay their entry into the work force.
New research suggests that the number of “disconnected” young people — defined as those who are neither in school nor the work force — is growing. For young women, the caregiving crisis may be a major reason they have put on hold their education or careers.
Last year, unemployment among young adults jumped to 27.4 percent in April from 7.8 percent in February — almost double the 14 percent overall unemployment rate that month and the highest for that age group in the last two decades, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
At its peak in April, the unemployment rate for young women over all hit 30 percent — with a 22 percent rate for white women in that age group, 30 percent for Black women and 31 percent for Latina women.
Those numbers are starting to improve as many female-dominated industries that shed jobs at the start of the pandemic, like leisure, retail and education, are adding them back.
The unemployment rate for young women is now down to 9 percent — lower than the rate for young men, which is at 12 percent, but still higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate of 6 percent. But that doesn’t mean young women are necessarily faring much better now than they were earlier in the pandemic.
Because many young women have stopped looking for work, they’re not counted in unemployment numbers. Roughly 18 percent of the 1.9 million women who have left the work force completely since last February — or about 360,000 — were 16 to 24, according to an analysis of seasonally unadjusted numbers by the National Women’s Law Center.
At the same time, the number of women who have dropped out of some form of education or plan to is on the rise. During the pandemic, more women than men consistently reported that they had canceled plans to take postsecondary classes or planned to take fewer classes, according to a series of surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau since last April.
A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, using the Current Population Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which has smaller sample sizes but produces faster snapshots of data, found that the rates of disconnected young people jumped sharply from 2019 to 2020 among Black, Latina and Native American women.
Though the rates during that period jumped for young men, too, it is noteworthy that before the pandemic the rate of disconnection among young women was dropping faster than for men. In 2015, it was 16 percent for young women compared with 14.8 percent of men. By 2019, women had somewhat closed that gap — 13.5 percent of women were disconnected compared with 12.9 percent of men. Then in 2020, the rate for both men and women shot up to 17 percent.
The number of disconnected youth over all had been steadily declining, to 4.3 million people in 2018 from a peak of 6 million in 2008, according to Measure of America, a project by the Social Science Research Council, a nonprofit that published its latest report on disconnection last summer.
Researchers at Measure of America predicted that the pandemic could reverse much of that progress and even push up the number of disconnected youth to a record high of nine million people — or a quarter of America’s youth.
“We rely on carefully collected data that takes researchers 18 months or more to gather, verify and format,” the report stated. But “we are painfully aware that as we write, the Covid-19 pandemic is eating away at these gains. The pandemic will change the rates of youth disconnection drastically, likely wiping out a decade’s progress.”
Though it is still early for definitive data, experts suggest that the same care crisis that forced adult women out of the work force may have spilled over to younger women, with many looking after their siblings or relatives, for example, so that their parents can work.
Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that provides STEM classes and workshops for girls, surveyed hundreds of its own students and found that 25 percent of high school seniors and 20 percent of college seniors reported that they were responsible for caring for a family member, though the survey didn’t explore whether those responsibilities specifically affected their education plans.
Researchers at Measure of America, who kept in touch with their grass roots partners across the country during the pandemic, heard similar stories — young women who were unable to complete a class or an assignment because of family obligations, said Rebecca Gluskin, deputy director and chief statistician at Measure of America.
Young women are also much more likely than young men to be single parents, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research study noted, putting them in the stressful position during the pandemic of choosing between bringing in a paycheck or caring for their children.
“We’ve focused in particular on the digital divide and the impact of that on the learning loss for kids,” said Reshma Saujani, chief executive and founder of the nonprofit Girls Who Code. “But we’re not talking about how the caregiving crisis is impacting the learning loss for kids and how it’s disproportionately impacting girls and girls of color.”
She added, “This is a strategy that we use when we intervene across the world,” pointing to the Let Girls Learn program under the Obama administration, which she said was based entirely on the recognition “that girls drop out of school because they have to do household work and care taking.”
“Now the same exact thing is happening in the United States,” Ms. Saujani said.
All of this can have long-term knock-on effects.
Even temporary unemployment or an education setback at a young age can drag down someone’s potential for earnings, job stability and even homeownership years down the line, according to a 2018 study by Measure of America that tracked disconnected youth over the course of 15 years.
To this day, millennials who were starting their careers in 2008 but were set off course by the recession still haven’t recovered from that hit, said Jill Filipovic, author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.”
For women, a hit early on in their career also translates into a wider gender pay gap for the rest of their lives, Ms. Filipovic added.
“We know that the gender pay gap expands as women hit their childbearing years, which is mid-20s to mid- to late 30s,” she said. “So young women in their early 20s have such a short window of time to build up to their highest earning potential.”
“But if you’re already starting off back behind the starting gun, there’s really nothing that I’ve seen that suggests that any of that gets made up for later in life.”
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