The principal advantage enjoyed by young workers today is that there are fewer of them. At the beginning of the 1980s, there were more than 27 million young people aged 16 to 26 who were not enrolled in school and who either had or were seeking full-time employment. Ten years later that same youth cohort (16 to 26) numbered just 22 million. With fewer young people competing for jobs, their participation in the labor force actually increased slightly, from 69 percent in 1981 to 70 percent in 1991, while the proportion of those working full time increased from 75 to 79 percent over the same decade. (The discussion of youth labor market characteristics presented in this and succeeding paragraphs is drawn from an analysis of the Current Population Survey contained in Making Good Jobs for Young People a National Priority, a publication of the National Advisory Board of the National Center on the Educational Quality of the Workforce, 1995a).
Offsetting this slight increase in employment, however, are three significant losses that substantially disadvantage this and succeeding generations of young people. In 1981, 19 percent of young workers in the United States were employed in full-time jobs in the manufacturing sector. Ten years later only 15 percent of youth worked full time in the same sector—a net loss of 1.65 million manufacturing jobs for young workers. At the same time, the proportion of full-time manufacturing jobs held by workers aged 16 to 26 fell from 23 percent in 1981 to 16 percent in 1991.
Changes in the armed services tell much the same story. In 1987 the armed services enlisted almost 300,000 new recruits—for the most part, young people with high school degrees but little subsequent postsecondary education. By 1993, these annual accessions to the military had been reduced by one-third, which meant 100,000 fewer recruits each year. The number is expected to drop even further as the military continues to downsize. What will be lost by the end of the decade are almost 1 million good jobs for young people: jobs with good pay, excellent benefits, opportunities to acquire technical skills, and further educational benefits after service (Barley, 1994; Laurence, 1994).
Not surprisingly, this decline in good jobs for young people has been accompanied by a general and persistent decline in the wages paid to them. Compared with their counterparts of a decade ago, young workers in the United States are more likely to have jobs for which they are paid less. When education, gender, race or ethnicity, and industry of employment are taken into account, young workers today earn, on average, more than 10 percent less in constant dollars than their counterparts a decade ago. For disadvantaged youth and those without high school credentials, the decline has been even more dramatic.
The strategy of schools' negotiating with employers to yield more work-relevant courses of study, resulting in the production of more work-ready young graduates, has proven to be difficult to implement. It is the dream of every school reformer committed to devising more work-relevant and/or work-based curricula to sit across the table from a group of employers who are ready and willing to tell