Economics » Unemployment » How the Unemployment Rate is Defined and Computed

Who’s in Or Out of the Labor Force?

Who’s In or Out of the Labor Force?

Should everyone without a job be counted as unemployed? Of course not. Children, for example, should not be counted as unemployed. Surely, the retired should not be counted as unemployed. Many full-time university students have only a part-time job, or no job at all, but it seems inappropriate to count them as suffering the pains of unemployment. Some people are not working because they are rearing children, ill, on vacation, or on parental leave.

The point is that the adult population is not just divided into employed and unemployed. A third group exists: people who do not have a job, and for some reason—retirement, looking after children, taking a voluntary break before a new job—are not interested in having a job, either. It also includes those who do want a job but have quit looking, often due to being discouraged by their inability to find suitable employment. Economists refer to this third group of those who are not working and not looking for work as out of the labor force or not in the labor force.

The U.S. unemployment rate, which is based on a monthly survey carried out by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, asks a series of questions to divide up the adult population into employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force. To be classified as unemployed, a person must be without a job, currently available to work, and actively looking for work in the previous four weeks. Thus, a person who does not have a job but who is not currently available to work or has not actively looked for work in the last four weeks is counted as out of the labor force.

Employed: currently working for pay

Unemployed: Out of work and actively looking for a job

Out of the labor force: Out of paid work and not actively looking for a job

Labor force: the number of employed plus the unemployed


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