WASHINGTON — Squeezed by a tight job market, young Americans are especially struggling. They have suffered bigger income losses than other age groups and are less likely to be employed than at any time since World War II.
An analysis by the Pew Research Center, released Thursday, details the impact of the recent recession on the attitudes of a generation of mostly 20- and 30-somethings.
With government data showing record gaps in employment between young and old, a Pew survey found that 41 percent of Americans believe that younger adults have been hit harder than any other group, compared with 29 percent who say middle-aged Americans and 24 percent who point to seniors 65 and older. A wide majority of the public — at least 69 percent — also said it's more difficult for today's young adults than their parents' generation to pay for college, find a job, buy a home or save for the future.
Among young adults ages 18 to 34, only a third rated their financial situation as "excellent" or "good," compared with 54 percent for seniors age 65 and over. In 2004, before the recession began, about half of both young and older adults rated their own financial situation highly.
"Young workers are on the bottom of the ladder, and during a recession like we've had, it's often hard for them to hold on," said Kim Parker, associate director of Pew's Social & Demographic Trends project. She noted that some have been heavily involved in the nationwide "Occupy" protests over economic disparity.
"They are clearly less satisfied with their current circumstances than they were before the recession," she said. "This may be where some of the anger and frustration being expressed in the Occupy movement is rooted."
"They have a long way to climb back, and a lot of displaced workers to compete with," she said.
Still, Parker noted that despite the challenges, young adults were upbeat about the future: only 9 percent said they didn't think they would ever have enough money to live the life they want, a share unchanged from before the recession. In contrast, 28 percent of adults 35 and older didn't anticipate making enough in the future.
The latest numbers offered a mixed picture for young adults, many of them minorities, whose strong turnout and 2-1 support for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 buoyed him to election. As voters this year point to the economy as their top concern, a slew of recent census data have underscored the difficulties of young adults: in record numbers, they are shunning long-distance moves in the economic downturn to live with mom and dad, delaying marriage and raising kids out of wedlock, if they're becoming parents at all.
At risk of becoming a "lost generation," many young adults are going back to school or scraping by on waitressing, bartending and odd jobs as they wait for the economy to slowly recover.
—The share of young adults 18-24 who are employed has dropped to 54.3 percent, the lowest level since the government began tracking such data in 1948. In the downturn, the employment decline has been steeper for this age group than any other; at the end of 2011, the unemployment rate was 16.3 percent for 18-to-24-year olds and 8.8 percent for adults ages 18-64. After the recession technically ended in mid-2009, the gap in the unemployment rate between those two age groups stretched to the widest on record.
—Young adults working full time have median weekly earnings of $448, about 6 percent less than in 2007, as employers found it easier to restrict the wages for entry-level jobs than to cut the pay of more experienced workers. Other age groups had either no change or modest increases in pay during the same period.
—About 19 percent of men ages 25-34 were idle in the weak job market, neither working nor attending school. That's up from 14 percent in 2007.
—Fewer than half of young adults who are currently working say they have the education and skills necessary to advance in their careers. They also feel more vulnerable than they used to: 43 percent said they were extremely or very confident that they could find another job if they lost or left their current one. That's up from 25 percent in 2009, but down from 65 percent in 1998.
The shifts may be contributing to changes in social norms about when adulthood begins.
A shrinking share of parents — about 67 percent — believe that children should become financially independent by age 22, while 31 percent say it need not occur until age 25 or later, according to the Pew survey. In 1993, 80 percent of parents said children should be independent by age 22.
"I'm surprised young adults remain so optimistic," said Mark Mather, an associate vice president at the Population Reference Bureau who has analyzed the census data. "The research points to long-term economic problems for young adults. But many of the trends we are seeing among young people — postponing marriage, living at home, staying in school longer — can be viewed more as short-term ways to cope until the economy picks up."
Pew based its findings on Bureau of Labor Statistics data as well as a poll of 2,048 adults interviewed by cellphone or landline from Dec. 6-19, 2011. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points for all respondents, higher for subgroups.