Millennials’ Disconnection From the Economy Doesn’t Get Better With Age, New Study Shows

By David Lariviere

A new ETS report combining the two should make everyone pay attention to the connections between education research and the economy.

“Doesn’t Get Better with Age: Predicting Millennials’ Disconnection,” co-authored by Catherine Millett and Marisol Kevelson of the ETS Policy Evaluation & Research Center, is full of stunning and disturbing revelations that have real-world implications for the country’s largest demographic. The most shocking takeaway may be, in studying a group of millennials over a decade, that 12 percent of them were disconnected, or not in school, training or in the workforce, at the age of 26 — a much greater percentage rate than 5  percent when they were 20, and the less than 1 percent rate when they were 18.

It’s also a far cry from the national unemployment figure of around 6.5 percent for 20- to 24-year-olds, however, that is calculated by measuring those actively seeking work. The ETS report showed that 8 percent of disconnected youth were looking for work, and the remaining 4 percent were out of the workforce. Those who were still looking for work may be struggling to reconnect to society. They may face challenges including limited skills and low-wage jobs that don’t provide stability or health insurance.

About 20 percent of disconnected young adults were moms who were out of the labor force, according to Kevelson, who also noted that we don’t know how many of these moms would rather be working, but find the cost of child care makes it financially impossible.

It got worse as a result of the Great Recession (in 2008). By 2012, a lot of the recovery had happened, but the effects were still being felt and were more pronounced among young people.

~ Marisol Kevelson, ETS Policy Evaluation & Research Center

The group of millennials was studied at four points in their lives (ages 16, 18, 20 and 26) between 2002 and 2012 using data from a National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study.

The two researchers acknowledge that some people have always been out of the workforce, but the problem got worse during the years of the study. “It got worse as a result of the Great Recession (in 2008). By 2012, a lot of the recovery had happened, but the effects were still being felt and were more pronounced among young people,” Kevelson explained. Even now, in a strong economy, similar numbers of millennials are disconnected.

“We don’t know all of the reasons that a minority of disconnected youth take themselves out of the work force. It may be to take care of their parents who have health issues, or they may have their own health issues,” observed Millett. “The bigger concern is the people who want to be connected, but are left out because they face a lot of obstacles. This study,” she continues, “was a very rich opportunity for us because we got to see the journeys people take. When you talk to 10th graders, no one ever says, I ­don’t want to be in the economy. They say, I want to be a firefighter or a nurse or they don’t know. When you’re young, there’s a lot of opportunity.”

I think most people believe that if they get a student on the right pathway out of high school, it won’t happen to them.

~ Catherine Millett, ETS Policy Evaluation & Research Center

Kevelson and Millett presented their report at the National Press Club in Washington in November.

Another important finding was that disconnection can happen to anyone. “I think most people believe that if they get a student on the right pathway out of high school, it won’t happen to them,” Millett said. “We’re seeing that this could happen to anyone. We’re also seeing that certain strategies may help prevent disconnection and help to keep people on the right track.”

Kevelson thought a surprise was that a person’s high school experiences may matter more than their socioeconomic status or race, although coming from a low-income background can certainly pose many challenges. While young minorities do end up disconnected more often, Black and Hispanic males were not more likely than white males to be disconnected after accounting for high school experiences and characteristics.

“Their high school experiences are more powerful,” Kevelson said. “This is an important reason to make sure everyone has access to a high quality education.” Fortifying and enriching the years spent in high school is one solution to preventing later disconnection, the researchers said. They also noted that students that had special educational needs in high school may need even more supports as they transition into adulthood.

“The big takeaway we want is for it to help people actually go do something. We want it to help move the needle forward,” said Millett. Many promising initiatives exist and are under development; Millett and Kevelson aim to share their findings with those leading such efforts to help them fine-tune programs and supports for disconnected youth.

ETS has been focused on understanding this challenge in 2018 as another report was published in April called “Too Big To Fail: Millennials on the Margins,” co-authored by ETS Researchers Anita Sands and Madeline Goodman, who were also in attendance in Washington, along with ETS President Walt MacDonald.

The reports prompted a discussion on possible solutions to disconnection, Kevelson said, focusing on many factors, including the need to add social and emotional learning curricula and assessments into schools, a call for cultural changes in terms of the extent to which our society is willing to invest in its struggling members, improvements in educational equity, the need to connect educational systems to workforce systems, and getting community organizations focused on reconnection and reengagement.

Millett emphasized that it was important to understand what the factors are that protect people from being disconnected or that put them at greater risk. In that way, information can be provided and interventions can be made at crucial stages in the process.

“We need to be learning more about it as technology changes and new workforce opportunities develop,” said Millett. “I see a lot more disruptions in the coming years that will potentially contribute to disconnection as we try to equip future high school students with the tools they need to succeed.”