California’s young workers, between the ages of 16 and 24, are not just participants in the state’s economy. They are at the heart of shaping its future. There are unique challenges and opportunities involved in supporting young workers, who are often working in low-wage jobs and balancing work with education and family responsibilities. Their experiences offer a window into the evolving dynamics of work and the need for supportive policies and practices. 

A November 2023 report from the UCLA Labor Center, California’s Future is Clocked In: The Experiences of Young Workers, provides critical insights into the lives of young Californians in the workforce. The report details the experiences of California’s young workers and elevates opportunities to improve their circumstances through changes in state policy, hiring practices, and improved access to information about available public services and supports. The report describes how young workers are crucial to California’s economy but often face financial hardships due to low wages and limited workplace benefits.  

UCLA Labor Center: Photographer Wil Prada

Young workers constitute 12% of the state’s labor force, with 45% of young people ages 16-24 actively engaged in employment. Nearly 72% of young workers identify as people of color; more than half identify as Latinx. Their contributions are not just limited to economic output. Many of these young workers shoulder critical family responsibilities, with 15% of the 16-18 age group and 50% of the 19-24 age group employed full-time, often contributing significantly to their household incomes.  

The sectors employing these young workers are as varied as their backgrounds, with a notable concentration in the service industry, particularly in restaurants and retail, which account for 41% of the jobs held by young workers. According to the report, these sectors’ low wages and lack of benefits, along with a unionization rate of 9%, result in immediate financial challenges for young workers, as well as long-term earnings implications. More than 70% of young workers face difficulties in affording all their expenses, with a substantial portion living in households below the poverty line. Young workers were particularly hit hard by unemployment and underemployment during the pandemic, with service and frontline jobs being most affected.  

Solutions for a Brighter Future for Young Workers 

Apprenticeships, unionization, education, and community-based organizations are among the solutions and strategies highlighted in the report to support young workers. In a related webinar,  California Assemblymember Liz Ortega shared that labor rights education for young workers can be a pathway for improving their working conditions. Apprenticeship programs, for their part, offer young workers a robust avenue for acquiring practical skills and enhancing their employability, with the added benefit of better wages. Young workers constitute just 31% of apprenticeship participants, with young Latinx workers participating at a much higher rate than young Black workers. 

“Young people are increasingly interested in unions and nontraditional careers and continue to weigh the rising cost of college with its supposed benefits,” according to Janna Shadduck-Hernández, Ed.D., a project director at the UCLA Labor Center and one of the report co-authors. Unionization, while low for young workers, offers an avenue for better wages, benefits, and working environments, setting a foundation for more secure and prosperous employment paths, she added. 

Education also significantly influences the employment and earning potential of young workers in California. Many students, though, are juggling the demands of work and school. Among young workers and learners, 40% (across all levels of education) work between 15 and 29 hours a week. Hours worked and the money earned impact a young person’s ability to attain post-secondary credentials and, consequently, secure better economic opportunities. As student Uriel Perez shared, “It’s work on top of work. I can’t do homework while I’m mopping the floor or taking out the trash, so it’s a lot and it does create a burden, mentally, emotionally, and physically as well.” 

Community-based organizations can also play a crucial role in supporting young workers through advocacy, education, and policy initiatives. Many of these organizations also provide opportunities for young workers to learn about their rights, access resources, and receive guidance on navigating the complexities of the labor market.  

A Robust and Equitable Economy for Generations to Come 

In the vibrant landscape of California’s economy, young workers emerge as pivotal figures, embodying both the current workforce and the future’s promise. As the conversation on this important issue evolves, the best solutions will move toward creating a more equitable and supportive environment that recognizes the contributions of young workers and addresses their needs. By listening to and supporting young workers, California can ensure a robust and equitable economy for generations to come. 

For further insights, visit the UCLA Labor Center’s full report and watch the related webinar.