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  5. The number of young working men without college degrees has tanked in the last 30 years. It could be because their wages have barely budged.

The number of young working men without college degrees has tanked in the last 30 years. It could be because their wages have barely budged.

Ayelet Sheffey,Jacob Zinkula,Madison Hoff   

The number of young working men without college degrees has tanked in the last 30 years. It could be because their wages have barely budged.
  • A Pew Research Center report found young men without college degrees earned more in 2023 than a decade earlier.
  • In the longer term, though, real wages for those without degrees have been mostly flat since the '90s.

Young men without college degrees have been dropping out of the workforce for decades. But those who are working have higher earnings compared to 10 years ago, even as those wages have been mostly going sideways for decades.

On Thursday, the Pew Research Center released a report delving into whether a college degree is worth it. The report compares economic outcomes for young adults who've completed a college degree with those who have not.

In a survey of 5,203 adults in the US conducted from November to December 2023, the report found that only 22% of adults think the cost of college is worth it if it's accompanied by taking on student loans.

And while those who graduated from a four-year degree program reported their higher education as being extremely or very useful in equipping them with the skills they needed for their careers, young men — aged 25 to 34 — without college degrees saw improvement in their economic conditions over the past decade, even though in the longer term their wages have not kept up.

For example, according to the report, median earnings have been "increasing modestly" over the past 10 years for young men with a high school education or some college education who are working full time — and the median household income adjusted for inflation of young men with a high school education is now $75,200, up from $63,800 in 2014.

In the recently tight labor market where some employers have had a rough time getting workers interested in filling open roles and amid low unemployment rates, Richard Fry, senior researcher at Pew Research Center, told Business Insider in a statement "employers have to pay higher wages in order to attract and retain workers, including less-educated workers."

"Labor markets were also tight in the late 1990s," Fry said. "Accompanying that wages were also bid up for non-college educated young men at that time."

While young men working full-time, year-round and whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma have higher real earnings than in 2014, they are not earning as much as their peers with a bachelor's degree or more.

Pew found young men with at least a bachelor's saw their median earnings rise from $67,500 in 2014 to $77,000 in 2023, a 14% increase over the decade. Meanwhile, those whose highest educational attainment is a high school diploma saw median earnings climb from $39,300 in 2014 to $45,000 in 2023, a similar increase of 14.6% based on the data shared with Business Insider.

This report comes amid a changing higher education atmosphere. A growing number of young adults are choosing to skip college because they don't believe taking on student debt will pay off, and some states are increasingly removing college degree requirements in an effort to fill more jobs. As a result, earning a degree might not come with the same benefits and prestige that it used to. The unemployment rate for Americans aged 25 and older with only a high school diploma was 4.0% as of April 2024, down from 6.2% in April 2014.

But despite the gains in earnings and household income for young men without degrees over the past decade, economic conditions are still far from perfect. Over the past few decades, the challenge of finding a high-paying job without a college degree is among the reasons some men have exited the labor force.

In April 1950, about 96% of American men ages 25 to 54 had a job or were actively looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As of April 2024, that figure had fallen to about 89%. As of April, 62.9% of US men aged 25 and older with only a high school degree were employed, down from over 72% in 2000 — although an aging population could explain some of this decline.

Pew Research Center's analysis shows the share of young men with a high school diploma as their highest educational attainment who are working or looking for work has dropped from 98% in 1970 to around 87% in 2023. That rate had climbed from 84% in 2021.

Fry said in a statement that one reason for the long-term drop in the share of this particular group of men seeking work or actually working could be due to falling wages. "But there is debate as to whether that alone is sufficient to explain the decline," Fry added.

Fry added, "the rising rates of young men with criminal records" could be a reason given they could have a hard time finding work. "More recently, the rise of opioid addiction may be contributing to the decline in young men's labor force participation," Fry said.

These challenges persist today for some men, who now account for less than half of college enrollees, even as more companies have started hiring candidates without a degree and wages have risen over the past few years for some lower-income workers. While the median inflation-adjusted earnings of young US men without a college degree have risen over the past decade, they remain lower than they were in 1970, per Pew's analysis.

In contrast, a chart in the new report said, "Labor force participation of young women without a college degree has risen since 2014." The report said, "as of 2023, 69% of young women with a high school education were in the labor force, as were 78% of young women with some college education." Still, the levels are slightly lower than 2000, which could be a result of a lack of federal paid and family leave benefits, forcing some women to leave their jobs if they have a baby.

Deciding whether the cost of college is worth it is something younger Americans are increasingly grappling with. A recent survey from Deloitte found that a third of Gen Z and millennials chose to skip higher education due to financial barriers, personal circumstances, and looking for careers that don't require college degrees — showing how if schools don't adjust to the changing values of young adults, they might soon lose their relevance.




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