The Life Course of Unemployment: The Timing and Relative Degree of Risk

Sarah Damaske, Adrianne Frech, Hilary Wething

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


We use the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 to identify group-based trajectories of unemployment risk as workers age in the United States. Our novel methodological approach reveals 73% of full-time workers spend much of their 20, 30, and 40 s with a relatively low risk of unemployment. The remaining sizable minority varies in the timing and relative degree of their unemployment risk. Eighteen percent experience early career unemployment risk into their early thirties, well after the transition to adulthood. Chronic unemployment characterizes the labor market experiences of the remaining 9%. When expanding the sample to all workers, we find two key differences: the overall prevalence of unemployment is greater each year for all groups and the distribution of respondents across groups differs, with fewer workers experiencing Lower unemployment and more workers experiencing Early Career or Higher unemployment. Unemployment risk is shaped by experiences of long-term unemployment in young adulthood and early labor market constraints. Moreover, while men and women appear equally at risk of Early career unemployment, men are particularly at risk of Higher unemployment. Black workers were significantly more likely to be at risk of Higher unemployment, but only slightly more likely to be at risk of Early career unemployment. Since Early career unemployment risk gives way to steadier work for most, this suggests that some men and some Black workers face disproportionately high levels of employment precarity. Our findings point to the importance of a life course approach for understanding the relationship between unemployment and labor market precarity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalWork and Occupations
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management

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