Is the Recession Giving Young Workers More Responsibility?

Is the Recession Giving Young Workers More Responsibility?
Is the Recession Giving Young Workers More Responsibility?

An article in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal describes what would appear to be an interesting trend: young, inexperienced workers being given greater responsibility than they would have a few years ago because of companies' desire to cut costs and lay off older, more experienced, more expensive workers.

"As companies adjust to operating with leaner staffs, many young professionals have been handed new responsibilities typically reserved for employees with more work experience under their belts," reports the Journal.

The only problem with the article is that with the exception of two anecdotes, the piece provides literally no evidence that this trend is actually occurring -- or that it's tied to the recession even if it is. It does make a nice narrative though: a tough economy that requires cost cutting giving young employees an unprecedented opportunity to show what they've got.

But when you look at the closest thing we have to actual data, you see that the vast majority of young workers are actually not getting responsibility beyond their years as a result of corporate belt-tightening. On the contrary, the recession is keeping them out of jobs commensurate with their training.

During the first four months of 2009, fewer than half of college graduates under 25 were working at jobs that required a degree -- and it's getting worse. U.S. employers are expecting to hire 7% fewer college grads from the class of 2010 than from the class of 2009.

I don't doubt that there are a few companies that are leaning on young workers to do more senior level work because of cost-cutting measures. But the statistical reality -- not the anecdote-driven lead that makes a nice story -- is that it's older workers who are keeping their jobs at the expense of the young. Between December 2007 and January 2010, the size of the young adult work force fell by 6.3%. The ranks of workers 55 and older grew by 8.5%.

A more likely -- but less satisfying -- scenario is this: Older workers are being asked to spend more time on menial tasks that were once the purview of younger workers, who are now devoting their time to sitting at home on their parents' couches playing video games and wondering what went wrong.