The Potential Dark Side of a White-Hot Labor Market

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Ms. Calvo is hoping to work her way up to the assistant store-manager level, which would put her in a salaried position, and thinks she has made the prudent choice in leaving school, even if her parents disagree.

“They think it’s a bad idea — they think I should have quit working, gone to college,” she said. But she has made enough money to put her name on a lease, which she recently signed along with her boyfriend, who is 19 and works at the restaurant in a local Nordstrom.

“I feel like I have a lot of experience, and I have a lot more to gain,” Ms. Calvo said.

The question, then, is how people like Ms. Calvo will fare in a weaker labor market, because today’s remarkable economic strength is unlikely to continue.

The Fed is raising rates in a bid to slow down consumer demand, which would in turn cool down job and wage growth. Monetary policy is a blunt instrument: There is a risk that the central bank will end up pushing unemployment higher, and even touch off a recession, as it tries to bring today’s rapid inflation under control.

That could be bad news for people without credentials or degrees. Historically, workers with less education and those who have been hired more recently are the ones to lose their jobs when unemployment rises and the economy weakens. At the onset of the pandemic, to consider an extreme example, unemployment for adults with a high school education jumped to 17.6 percent, while that for the college educated peaked at 8.4 percent.

The same people benefiting from unusual opportunities and rapid pay gains today could be the ones to suffer in a downturn. That is one reason economists and educators like Ms. Jackson often urge people to continue their training.

“We worry about their long-term futures, if this derails them from ever going to college, for a $17 to $19 Target job. That’s a loss,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor at Northeastern University who researches labor economics and youth development.

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