What Are Discouraged Workers?

What are discouraged workers, and how do they affect the labor force?

discouraged worker

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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.

While these people have looked for work within the past year, they are not officially classified as unemployed because they have not looked in the past four weeks. However, discouraged workers would take a job if it were offered.

By the Numbers

  • In November 2022, there were 405,000 workers categorized as discouraged, 34,000 more than in September.
  • 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.
  • Discouraged workers moving in and out of the labor force can affect how the unemployment rate is measured in the official unemployment rate.

Discouraged workers are not those who have dropped out of the labor force for reasons classified as "other." Those workers might have gone back to school to increase their chances of getting work. Others leave the workforce because they've started a family. Others can't work because they've become disabled. Although they may also feel discouraged, they aren't counted as discouraged workers.

What Discouraged Workers Mean For You

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  • They might have been unemployed for so long that their knowledge, skills, and abilities have become outdated.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.

While discouraged workers make up a relatively small percentage of the real unemployed, keeping an eye on this figure can tell you a lot about the labor market and the economy. For example. rising numbers of discouraged workers often coincides with a stagnating economy. Because discouraged workers are not counted in the official unemployment rate ("U-3"), that report may understate the severity of an economic downturn. Conversely, when discouraged workers return to the workforce (by actively seeking work), they will appear in the U-3 unemployment figure, raising the unemployment rate, even as the economy is improving.

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.

History of Discouraged Workers in the Labor Force Participation Rate

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 was due in part to discouraged workers, as shown in this chart.

Date LFPR Change Discouraged Workers Change Comments
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 rejoined 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 Continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are discouraged workers?

Discouraged workers are a sub-category of "marginally-attached workers," as classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The marginally attached are those unemployed who would like to work, and who have looked for work in the past 12 months, but not in the past month. Discouraged workers are the marginally attached who believe there are no jobs available, or no jobs available that match their skills.

Why are discouraged workers not counted among the unemployed?

Discouraged workers are counted among the unemployed but not in the official count of the unemployed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces several measures of unemployment. The official measure, "U-3 unemployment," includes people without a job, who are available to work, and who have actively looked for a job in the last four weeks. Discouraged workers are not counted as they have not looked in the previous month, and therefore they are not active participants in the labor market. However, discouraged workers are counted on another BLS measurement ("U-6"), the real unemployment rate, which counts unemployed workers, plus underemployed, marginally attached, and discouraged workers.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Accounting for Discouraged Workers in the Unemployment Rate."

  2. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey: Concepts and Definitions."

  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Employment Situation Summary."

  4. Congressional Budget Office. "Factors Affecting the Labor Force Participation Rate of People Ages 25 to 54." Pages 3, 22-24.

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Labor Force Participation Rate."

  6. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Characteristics."

  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Table A15: Alternative Measures of Labor Underutilization."

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