More on data on the current youth labor market as seen by pundits

May 22 '12

We are once again pleased to welcome back NYU political scientist Nathaniel Beck with a follow up to his previous guest post at The Monkey Cage on the misleading use of data regarding youth employment in the media:

Andrew Gelman has some nice points to make about Campbell Brown’s piece in the Sunday Review Section of the New York Times. I add to Andrew’s comments a note on Ms. Brown’s use of quantitative evidence (before she gets to the journalist’s bread and butter, anecdotes). Ms. Brown writes:

“He [Obama] conceded that it’s a tough economy, but he told the grads, `I am convinced you are tougher’ and `things will get better — they always do.’

[She continues] Hardly reassuring words when you look at the reality. According to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, about 53.6 percent of men and women under the age of 25 who hold bachelor’s degrees were jobless or underemployed last year, the most in at least 11 years. According to the Pew Research Center, if we broaden the age group to 18- to 29-year-olds, an estimated 37 percent are unemployed or out of the work force, the highest share in more than three decades.”

I have discussed the misleading implication of the first statistic in The Monkey Cage. The second part of the statement is a correct but incomplete representation of the Pew report on a portrait of the Millennial generation. She accurately reports the estimate of 37 percent of millennials being unemployed or out of the work force. The full Pew quote (p. 44) is:

“Nearly two-thirds of all >Millennials have full- or part-time jobs. As a group, they are less likely to be working than their Gen X brothers and sisters (65% vs. 75%) and about as likely to be employed as Baby Boomers (68%). [footnote] While this estimate of 65% is based on the latest Pew Research Center survey, it is virtually identical to official government estimates of employment. According to Census Bureau figures collected last year, about 63% of Millennials are defined as civilian employed while 37% are either unemployed or not in the labor force.”

Alas, she failed to note the paragraph immediately following, which reads in full:

“But the comparison is deceptive. Fully 13% of all Millennials are students who do not work for pay, compared with only 1% of Gen Xers and even fewer Baby Boomers. When the share of students in the Millennial generation is factored into the equation, the profiles of the generations look remarkably the same: About three-quarters of both generations are employed or attending school (80% for Millennials vs. 78% for Gen Xers.”

Ms. Brown also fails to tell the reader that the survey which formed the basis for the Pew Report was done in January 2010. The interested reader might note that the Millennials’ unemployment rate has fallen about 2.5% in the ensuing two years.

I am not so naive as to believe that pundits choose their positions based upon careful reading of the data. But I presume that newspapers like the New York Times might actually care about their readers being informed. There is a simple solution for the New York Times: in their on-line edition, have an editor go through opinion pieces and provide a clickable link for every factual assertion. This is not asking the editors to fact check, but simply to make sure that an interested reader can easily check the source of assertions made in opinion pieces. Since opinion pieces are edited for such items as length and usage, this would involve no extra work, and having the words “Center for Labor Market Studies” and “Pew Research Center” in blue would hardly distract the less interested reader. Thanks to Google, it took me under a minute to find the relevant page in the Pew Report, but I assume that other Times readers have a life. I have suggested this reform to the Public Editor of the Times; we shall see if anything comes of this.