youth job interview
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The share of young adults with jobs has hit its lowest level since the government started keeping records just after World War II.

By the end of 2011, only 54.3% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 were employed, according to a Pew Research Center report released Thursday. And the gap in employment between the young and all working-age adults is roughly 15 percentage points -- the widest on record.

The Great Recession hurt the young more than most other age groups. Their employment decline has been steeper and their median weekly earnings fell by 6%, while holding steady for others, Pew found.

Only part of this can be explained by the growth in college attendance. While a greater share of 18- to 24-year-olds are in school than ever before, the employment rate has fallen regardless of enrollment.

For those in college, only 40.7% had jobs last year, down from 47.6% in 2007. And the employment rate for young adults not in school dropped to 65%, from 73.2% in 2007.

The jobless rate for 18- to 24-year-olds was 16.3% last year, compared to 8.8% for the overall population.

The weak job market has altered young adults' lives and aspirations, the report found. It backs up earlier studies showing that young adults have had to delay major life decisions.

Nearly half of 18- to 34-year-olds say they've taken a job they didn't want just to pay the bills, while another quarter have accepted unpaid work in order to gain experience. Nearly a third postponed getting married or having a baby. One in four moved back home with their parents after living on their own.

But the young have maintained their optimism. Some 88% of 18- to 34-year-olds say they either have earned enough money now to lead the kind of life they want or expect they will earn enough in the future. Their older compatriots have a much darker view, with 28% of people over the age of 35 saying they will never earn enough.