Why More Than 1/3 of Americans Are Not Looking For Work

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Jobs, jobs, jobs — few other things have dominated the news cycle and political discussions in America as much as employment over the past several years. Though the economy has found some sound footing following the catastrophic meltdown at the end of the George W. Bush presidency, many people on the middle and bottom rungs of society are still struggling to get to their feet. Though the unemployment rate has hit new lows at marks below 6%, new research shows that there are still a huge number of Americans who appear to simply be sitting on the sidelines.

Data from the Pew Research Center, which looked into recent jobs reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows that a whopping 92 million Americans, or 37% of the civilian population older than 16, are “not in the labor force.” That means that they are neither employed or unemployed, but that they haven’t looked for a new job in some time. In fact, they have been out of the hunt for so long that they are no longer counted as “unemployed.”

So what is going on here? Why are these people simply sitting back and not, at the very least, looking for a job? The answer isn’t so clear-cut, as the folks at Pew explain. “You might think legions of retiring Baby Boomers are to blame, or perhaps the swelling ranks of laid-off workers who’ve grown discouraged about their re-employment prospects,” the Pew Research Center says wrote.

“While both of those groups doubtless are important (though just how important is debated by labor economists), our analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data suggests another key factor: Teens and young adults aren’t as interested in entering the work force as they used to be, a trend that predates the Great Recession.”

Aren’t interested in working? That’s a finding that lends some credence to how many older Americans typically refer to younger generations as lazy and entitled. And the numbers do seem to reflect that: 93.3% of those 92 million working-age adults who are not in the labor force were found to simply not want a job. That is, they apparently don’t need a job, so they aren’t looking. This isn’t a case of individuals stuck in long-term unemployment who can’t find a new gig no matter what they do. These 85.9 million Americans are content with where they are.

Source: Pew Research Center

The ability to not participate in the labor force sounds like a luxury to many people who, despite their desires to spend their days pursuing other interests, need to pay the bills. It’s easy to draw some conclusions from these numbers, which may indicate some startling things about the nation’s work ethic, but we can get even further into the demographics, as well.

People over 55 account for more than half of those working-age adults who say they are not looking for work, which makes some sense. But younger demographics, particularly individuals between the ages of 16 and 24, have seen the percentage of those not looking for work raise significantly since the year 2000. This could indicate that many younger adults are returning to school or simply staying longer and earning higher-level degrees as they wait for economic conditions to improve.

Women are much more likely to say they aren’t looking for work than men. “Women are more likely than men to say they don’t want a job, although the gap has been narrowing — especially since the Great Recession,” Pew researchers say. “Last month, 28.5% of men said they didn’t want a job, up from 23.9% in October 2000 and 25.2% in October 2008. For women, the share saying they didn’t want a job hovered around 38% throughout the 2000s but began creeping up in 2010, reaching 40.2% last month.”

The most troubling aspect of all these numbers is the fact that younger Americans don’t want to work. While you would have to imagine that like most adults, the majority of these individuals don’t have a choice, as they have bills to pay, these numbers paint a different portrait. The deferring of employment while some stretch their educations longer and longer is a partial explanation, but with such an enormous number of youth who seem completely uninterested in building careers, it appears that there is something else at play.

For some middle-age adults, the reason that they have stopped looking for working is most likely attributed to the fact that they have been discouraged for so long that they’ve essentially given up altogether. Others have become reliant on government benefits to get by and have found that easier than actually finding work. A Congressional Budget Office release even addresses this issue, saying, “in CBO’s view, the difficulty of finding work during the past several years made it worthwhile for some unemployed people with moderate disabilities to apply for benefits rather than search for employment that would accommodate their disabilities.”

The CBO adds, “Once enrolled, very few recipients leave the program to return to the labor force.”

Are we creating a society in which people are reliant on government, and is that notion and lack of work ethic is having a “trickle down” effect on younger generations? That could be part of it. But there are a myriad of factors that have led us up to this point. By far the most troubling news out of Pew’s report is the finding that the youth are either so disillusioned with the workforce or disinterested that they are sitting out in large numbers, and that will likely have consequences down the road. Government also does play a role, as the CBO admits. Still others in the older range of adults have decided to retire early, or middle-age adults have chosen to focus on raising families rather than working.

It’s a complicated blend of factors, but when you crunch the numbers that the Pew Research Center has, the results are still quite surprising. There is a chance that these figures will improve, and that a lot of Americans will either be forced or choose to find work at some point, especially among the “marginally attached” subset of those who are not working. But as of right now, the realization that nearly 40% of Americans are sitting out instead of participating paints a pretty jarring portrait of where America stands economically.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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