Those figures actually understate the severity of the problem, however. The government only considers people “unemployed” if they’re actively looking for work. People who stop looking—whether they’re retired, in school, raising a family or living on friends’ couches — are instead considered “not in the labor force,” even if they would prefer to work given the opportunity.
When the recession began in December, 2007, 59.2% of the under-25 population was in the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work. Today, that figure has fallen to 54.5%. That may not sound like a big drop, but it makes a huge difference. If the so-called participation rate had remained unchanged, there would be 1.8 million more young people in the labor force today than there actually are. Counting those people as unemployed, rather than out of the labor force, would push the unemployment rate up to 22.9%. That’s only a hair better than the 23.9% youth unemployment rate in the euro zone, and has shown only very modest improvement during the recovery.