Over the month of August, I sat down and listened to 9 young adult workers from across Illinois to dig into their experiences within their respective workplaces ranging from retail, warehouse, hospitality, and labor. Through these conversations a clear, common theme arose: young workers ages 18-34 are undervalued and overworked. Young adults are often forced to take on employment with no benefits, poor job security, and unlivable wages.
Young workers are often hourly workers, which oftentimes are deprived of benefits such as health insurance, paid time off, and opportunities for growth. They are being asked to work through precarious working conditions as ‘work experience.’ Before the pandemic, these young workers would have been classified as unskilled labor; yet, when our economy was put to the test, it was these very workers that kept us afloat as essential workers. We must ensure that they can enter a workforce that can give access to a livable wage with consistent scheduling practices and the benefits that every worker deserves. All the individuals I spoke with expressed not receiving paid time off for sickness or family leave from their employer, leaving them in a vulnerable position. Losing access to a day’s pay in these cases can really impact a person’s finances and economic well being: roughly 60% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
A majority also expressed receiving no support for professional development for future upward mobility. The notion that young adults are made to gain work experience at the expense of access to benefits and further professional support is an inequitable practice. About 30% of low-wage hourly workers are living in households that fall 150% below the poverty line which leaves them in a constant, fragile economic state as they work to provide for themselves or their household. Roughly 13% of this workforce are young adults who appear to be off-track because they are not attending school and don’t have a college degree. For many hourly paid jobs are their first and only accessible entry point into employment. Many hourly workers hardly ever see a pay increase, and far fewer have the opportunity at becoming a full-time salaried employee, making insurance and paid time off even less accessible for young adults.
Young workers are fighting back by attempting to unionize in new workplaces to urge for the rights and protections they deserve. We are seeing an uproar in unionization that has not been seen in decades, and it’s being led by young adults. Several polls have shown that union approval has grown in recent years, and young adult union membership involvement has grown since 2019. Young adults are frequently given harsher working conditions and have been susceptible to lower wages. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed these working conditions to extremes and workers have had enough! At a time when hourly workers are considered essential in groceries, retail stores, warehouses, and across our hospitality industry, we must ensure that they have the needed benefits and pay for economic stability.
From these conversations, it is clear to me that we must find a way to ensure that the younger generations can enter a workforce that can provide them with a livable wage, access to paid time off, health insurance and retirement benefits, and employer-sponsored professional development. I worked with young adults, advocates, and legislators to start this work earlier this year with the adoption of the Young Workers Bill of Rights in Illinois, but the work must continue. We have seen how essential young adults have been to our workforce and economy; it’s time that we create a better job market for them.
Jorge Arteaga is Young Invincibles’ Midwest Program Manager, where he leads the office’s workforce development policy portfolio.