Discouraged workers are those who want—and are available—to work but have dropped out of the labor force because they believe there aren't any jobs for them. In April 2022, there were 456,000 workers categorized as discouraged, a slight increase from the 373,000 reported in March 2022. These figures are seasonally adjusted.
While these people have looked for work within the past year, they are not officially classified as unemployed because have not looked in the past four weeks. However, discouraged workers would take a job if it were offered.
Discouraged workers are not those who have dropped out of the labor force for reasons classified as "other." They might have gone back to school to increase their chances of getting work. Some leave the workforce because they've gotten pregnant. Others can't work because they've become disabled. Although they may also feel discouraged, they aren't counted as discouraged workers.
Four Reasons Why Discouraged Workers Give Up
There are several reasons discouraged workers give up looking for work. Here are a few:
- They might have been unemployed for so long that their knowledge, skills, and abilities have become outdated.
- They might not have the schooling or training needed to get the job they want.
- They might feel that there is a preference for younger workers in the available jobs.
- Some might believe they've been discriminated against because of their gender or race.
How Discouraged Workers Affect the Labor Force Participation Rate
Discouraged workers can reduce the labor force participation rate (LFPR) if unemployment is serious enough. At the beginning of a recession, the number of discouraged workers increases as the participation rate decreases. After looking for six months or more, many stop looking and drop out of the labor force. At that point, both the participation rate and the number of discouraged workers drop.
When the economy improves, discouraged workers return to the labor force. They may have the hardest time finding a new job, so their number could increase for a while. Eventually, the participation rate should increase and then stabilize as the number of discouraged workers drops.
The health and economic crisis in 2020 made it difficult for the unemployed to look for a job. Many simply dropped out until the labor market improved.
In the 21st century, the LFPR fell from its peak of 67.3% in April 2000 to 65.8% in 2005. It rose to 66.4% in January 2007, then fell to a new low of 62.4% in September 2015. In April 2020, the LFPR dropped to 60.2% because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The large drop is due in part to discouraged workers, as shown in this chart.
|April 2000||67.3%||Increase||327,000||Decrease||Labor force healthy at the end of the 1990s.|
|January 2005||65.8%||Decrease||491,000||Increase||Effects of recession.|
|January 2007||66.4%||Increase||421,000||Decrease||Labor force returned to health.|
|December 2010||64.3%||Decrease||1,301,000||Record high||Effects of recession.|
|February 2012||63.8%||Decrease||983,000||Decrease||Workers left the labor force. Many were too discouraged. Others went to school or retired. Some were forced to quit due to illness.|
|January 2014||62.9%||Decrease||803,000||Decrease||Workers left the labor force.|
|January 2015||62.9%||Equal||666,000||Decrease||Workers left the labor force.|
|January 2016||62.7%||Decrease||606,000||Decrease||Workers left the labor force.|
|January 2017||62.8%||Increase||515,000||Decrease||People returned to labor force as the number of discouraged workers dropped.|
|January 2018||62.7%||Decrease||435,000||Decrease||People returned to labor force.|
|January 2019||63.1%||Increase||411,000||Decrease||People returned to labor force.|
|January 2020||63.4%||Increase||335,000||Decrease||People returned to labor force.|
|January 2021||61.4%||Decrease||624,000||Increase||Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.|
|January 2022||62.2%||Increase||408,000||Decrease||Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; many unemployed ceased looking for work.|
Want to read more content like this? Sign up for The Balance’s newsletter for daily insights, analysis, and financial tips, all delivered straight to your inbox every morning!
Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation Summary."
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Accounting for Discouraged Workers in the Unemployment Rate." Accessed Jan. 7, 2022.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey: Concepts and Definitions." Accessed Jan. 7, 2022.
Congressional Budget Office. "Factors Affecting the Labor Force Participation Rate of People Ages 25 to 54." Pages 3, 22-24. Accessed Jan. 7, 2022.
Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Labor Force Participation Rate." Accessed Jan. 7, 2022.