Why 405,000 Jobseekers Are Discouraged

What They Are Doing Now. How They Support Themselves.

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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 February 2020, there were 405,000 of them. They've looked for a job sometime in the past year, but not in the past four weeks. They would take a job if it were offered. In most recoveries, they would have returned to the workforce already. In this recovery, they haven't. 

Discouraged workers do not include those who have dropped out of the labor force for other reasons. These are people who have gone back to school to better their chances of getting work. Many women leave the workforce because they've gotten pregnant. Other people can't work because they've become disabled. Although they may indeed also feel discouraged, they aren't counted as discouraged workers. 

Who makes this determination? The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Labor. It's in charge of collecting data on employment and unemployment in America. 

Even though they would like a job, discouraged workers are not counted as unemployed or included in the unemployment rate. They are counted in the real unemployment rate.

Four Reasons Why Discouraged Workers Gave Up

There are four reasons discouraged workers gave up looking for work. First, most of them have been unemployed for so long that they don't believe there are any jobs for them.

Second, they don't think they have the schooling or training needed to get a good job.

A third reason is age discrimination. They say a potential employer thought they were too young or old. In 2016, there were 553,000 discouraged workers. Of those, 28.2% were 55 or over. That's double the unemployed who hadn't given up looking for work. (Source: "Table 3. Employment Status of the Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Age, Sex, and Race," Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 8, 2017. "Table 35. Persons Not in Labor Force by Desire and Availability for Work, Age, and Sex," Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 8, 2017.)

Fourth, some believe they've been discriminated against because of their gender or race. In 2016, 62.4% of the discouraged workers were men. That's much higher than the 54% of men in the unemployed who didn't give up. 

What Discouraged Workers Are Doing Instead

What happened to the discouraged workers? A 2012 survey by the Richmond Federal Reserve found that 3.2 million stopped looking for work after a year of searching. Although they gave up, they would take a job if someone offered it to them.

Almost 50% of those not in labor force report they've retired. In 2012, workers age 55 or more were unemployed for 60 weeks on average. It was 42 weeks for all workers, according to the study. 

Fifteen percent of those that dropped out were looking after a family member instead of looking for work. Some of these are men that have turned to childcare instead.

Twenty percent of those aged 25 to 39 decided to go back to school. That's higher than the usual 15%. Six percent of those aged 40 to 59 went back to school. That's more than the standard 4 percent of older workers. 

How Discouraged Workers Affect the Labor Force Participation Rate

Discouraged workers can reduce the labor force participation rate 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, they will return to the labor force. They may have the hardest time finding a new job, so the number of discouraged workers could increase for a while. Eventually, the participation rate should increase and then stabilize as the number of discouraged workers drops. 

The LFPR fell from its peak of 67.3% in April 2000 to a low of 62.4% as of September 2015. It had dropped to 65.8% during the 2003 recession, but then rose to 66.4% in January 2007. What happened is due in large part to discouraged workers, as shown in this chart.

Date LFPR Change Discouraged Workers Change Comments
Apr 2000 67.3% Increase 331,000 Decrease Labor force healthy at the end of the 1990s.
Jan 2005 65.8% Decrease 515,000 Increase Effects of recession.
Jan 2007 66.4% Increase 442,000 Decrease Labor force returned to health.
Dec 2010 64.8% Decrease 1,318,000 Record high Effects of recession
Feb 2012 63.7% Decrease 1,006,000 Decrease Workers left the labor force. Many were too discouraged. Others went to school or retired. Some were forced to quit due to illness.
Jan 2014 62.9% Decrease 837,000 Decrease Workers left the labor force. 
Jan 2015 62.9% Decrease 682,000 Decrease Workers left the labor force. 
Jan 2016 62.7% Decrease 623,000 Decrease Workers left the labor force. 
Jan 2017 62.9% Increase 532,000 Decrease People returned to labor force as number of discouraged workers dropped.
Jan 2018 62.7% Decrease 451,000 Decrease People returned to labor force.
Jan 2019 63.2% Increase 426,000 Decrease People returned to labor force.
Jan 2020 63.4% Increase 337,000 Decrease People returned to labor force.

(Sources: "Civilian Labor Force Participation Rate," St. Louis FRED. "Number of Discouraged Workers," Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Article Sources

  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation Summary," Table  A. Accessed Jan. 10, 2020.