Reading the Employment Numbers: The Missing Workers

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By Bill Barclay

The July “Employment Situation” report from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has stimulated a range of responses. On the plus side for workers, over 200,000 additional people were employed compared to June. This extended the string of positive job numbers for private sector employers to 52 months, among the longest on record. Over the past 12 months, the U.S. economy has generated a little over 2 million new jobs.

 So, what can we say about who is and who isn’t employed?  And, are there any concerns that remain about the recovery from the “Great Recession?”

The answer to the latter question is, unfortunately, yes. And that yes is connected to who has – and more to who has not – the jobs that have been created over the five plus years since the official end of the Great Recession. 

The table below places the most recent employment numbers in context. The dates are (i) November 2007, the last month before the official onset of the Great Recession;  (ii) June 2009, the official end of the Great Recession; and (iii) the most recent Employment Situation report from the BLS (July 2014).

The total population of the U.S. has grown by almost 6.5 percent, or more than 8 million people, since the onset of the Great Recession. However, the number of people with jobs has barely increased – only 150,000 more people are employed than was the case in November 2007.  There are somewhat more women employed today than in November 2007 and somewhat fewer men employed. However, the big numbers are the people who are “not in the labor force.”  In 11/07 there were 30.2 million men and 48.9 million women classified as “not in the labor force,” or 79.1 million total; in July 2014 these numbers were 36.7 and 55.2 million, respectively, or 91.9 million in total. The civilian population grew by slightly over 15 million between 11/07 and 7/14; over 85 percent of this growth went into the “not in the labor force” category.




% Change, 11/07 – 6/09


% Change 11/07 – 7/14

Civilian Pop






Employed Pop






Men Employed






Men not in Labor Force






Women Employed






Women not in Labor Force






The BLS defines “not in the labor force” as people neither employed nor unemployed, i.e. not holding a job nor looking for one. These can be people in school, taking care of family members – or people who have simply dropped out of the labor force because of lack of job opportunities. The latter can be thought of as “missing workers.”  Missing workers are not necessarily happy to be neither employed nor unemployed. Many would be employed (and others would be actively seeking employment, thus classified as “unemployed”) if the US economy were working for us all. The most recent estimate of the number of “missing workers” – people who, in a well-functioning economy would be in the labor force – is almost 5.9 million people. Over half are people in the 25-54 age range, prime working years.

The lack of income for missing workers is frequently a story of careers cut short, dreams deferred, hopes destroyed. These are personal tragedies that, in an economy organized for people rather than for profits, would not occur. However, even if this does not move you, think about the economic loss that we suffer: the foregone output from 5.9 million missing workers is over $2 trillion.

The private sector has demonstrated that it can generate a modest level of employment growth. However, the result remains one of labor market stagnation and missing workers. Without public action – government job creation – the U.S. economy will continue to fail the fundamental test that all modern economies should meet: to generate living-wage jobs for all willing and able to work.

In early July, the Chicago Political Economy Group joined other groups from around the country in Washington D.C. to demand that Congress respond to the continuing failure of our economy. Of course Rep. John Conyers’ HR 1000, the 21st Century Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act, was a major focus. Equally important, however, we created a National Jobs for All Network. The Network is now planning actions for a fall campaign around the jobs: stay tuned.

  Bill Barclay is on the Steering Committee of Chicago DSA, is a founding member of the Chicago Political Economy Group and serves as DSA National Member Organizer.

 Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


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