• A Pew Research Center analysis of data shows young people have experienced a drop in employment and labor force participation due to COVID-19.
  • In October 2019, 78% of adults ages 20 to 29 who had graduated during the previous spring were employed, compared to 69% in 2020.
  • There was also a slight decline in 2020 college enrollment among certain demographic groups, including Black and Asian young adults.

From their virtual commencements, the class of 2020 graduates looked out into a very different economic future than their predecessors the year before – one upended by a recession caused by a pandemic that has been particularly hard on young workers. The challenges of a pandemic economy are evident in the labor market outcomes of 2020 college graduates, who have experienced a downturn in employment and labor force participation, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from January to October collected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

a chart showing that 2020 college graduates are less likely to be in the labor force or employed than their 2019 predecessors
The pandemic has hit young workers particularly hard.
Image: Pew Research Center

In October 2020, 69% of adults ages 20 to 29 who had graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree or higher during the previous spring were employed, lower than the share of 2019 graduates who were employed in October of that year (78%). The labor force participation rate for recent college graduates – or the share of people employed or actively looking for a job – also dropped from 86% to 79% during this one-year period. As has been widely documented, the broader labor market took a significant hit during the pandemic. Among all Americans ages 16 and older, the employment rate declined from 61% in October 2019 to 58% in October 2020, and the labor force participation rate declined from 63% to 62%.

While it is too early to compare the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 recession and the Great Recession on recent college graduates, there is evidence that the outcomes for these young adults have differed in the months following their graduation. The labor force participation rates for the classes of 2007 and 2008 were relatively unchanged, whereas the class of 2020 saw a marked decline compared with the class of 2019.

a chart showing that 2020 college graduates have seen a bigger falloff in labor force participation than college grads did in the early months of the great recession
Comparing the effects of COVID-19 to the great recession.
Image: Pew Research Center

Class of 2020 high school graduates – young adults ages 16 to 24 who graduated from high school in the previous spring – faced their own challenges as they made decisions about entering the labor market or enrolling in college, among other options. Overall, college enrollment rates are largely unchanged for the class of 2020 compared with the class of 2019. However, an earlier analysis looking at the share of all 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college showed that there was a slight decline in enrollment among certain demographic groups, including Black and Asian young adults.

Among high school graduates who were not enrolled in college in the fall after graduation, the employment rate was similar in 2019 and 2020. However, there was a notable drop among women in this group: 65% were employed in 2019 vs. 54% in 2020 (there was no change among men in this group).