Discouraged Workers: Definition, Causes, and Solutions


Discouraged workers are individuals who, despite being eligible for employment, have ceased actively seeking work in the last four weeks due to a lack of suitable job opportunities. This article explores the concept of discouraged workers, their impact on unemployment statistics, causes of worker discouragement, and how the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics accounts for them. It also delves into the role of policymakers in assisting these workers and provides key takeaways to enhance your understanding.

What is a discouraged worker?

A discouraged worker is a person who is eligible for employment and can work, but who is currently unemployed and has not attempted to find employment in the last four weeks. Discouraged workers usually have given up on searching for a job because they found no suitable employment options or failed to secure a job when they applied.

Understanding discouraged workers

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) defines discouraged workers as “those persons not in the labor force who want and are available for work, and who have looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months, but were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey.” The BLS adds that “discouraged workers were not currently looking for work specifically because they believed no jobs were available for them or there were none for which they would qualify.”

As discouraged workers are no longer looking for employment, they are not counted as active in the labor force. This means that the headline unemployment rate, which is based solely on the active labor force number, does not take into account the number of discouraged workers in the country.

Causes for worker discouragement

The causes for worker discouragement are complex and varied. In some cases, workers fall out of the workforce because they are not equipped to deal with technological change in their workplace. An example of this occurred during the Great Recession when the manufacturing sector shed senior staff unable to work on the new computer numeric control (CNC) machines, used for cutting wood and other hard materials, according to a report by The Washington Post.

Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has blamed the “flight from work” on a lack of supply of skilled, able, and willing workers and an increasing reliance on disability insurance. His theory is backed by Alan Krueger’s 2016 research, which found that self-reported pain and disability insurance was higher among discouraged workers.

Other possible reasons for discouraged workers include restrictions that limit employment options for formerly incarcerated individuals and jobs that are perceived as being inaccessible to a specific gender.

In June 2022, there were 364,000 discouraged workers in the U.S. This was a sharp decrease from June 2021, when there were 631,000 discouraged workers.

BLS accounting for discouraged workers

To better analyze unemployment in the U.S., the BLS created alternative measures for the underutilization of labor. U-4, U-5, and U-6 capture discouraged workers.

U-4 equals the total number of unemployed people, plus discouraged workers.

U-5 equals the total number of unemployed people, discouraged workers, and other marginally attached workers.

U-6 equals the total number of unemployed people, all marginally attached workers, plus people employed part-time who are seeking full-time employment.

From the third quarter of 2021 through the second quarter of 2022, the U-4 rate, seasonally adjusted, was 4.4%, just a shade higher than the headline, or official, unemployment rate of 3.6%.

In spite of the pandemic’s impact on the economy, the current U-4 number is not as bad as the 2009 annual average, which stood at 9.7% in the throes of the Great Recession.

Helping the discouraged

The U-4 rate helps to quantify how many discouraged workers exist and keep tabs on the change in their numbers. Further analysis of age groups, race, and geographic location is also made possible by U-4 measures.

Policymakers at federal, state, and local levels can use these numbers to formulate plans to assist them. Such plans may consist of training programs, education subsidies, or tax credits for companies that hire long-term unemployed individuals.


Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.

  • Discouraged workers may re-enter the labor force when suitable job opportunities become available.
  • Alternative measures like U-4, U-5, and U-6 provide a more comprehensive view of labor market conditions.
  • Policymakers can use data on discouraged workers to create targeted employment assistance programs.
  • Discouraged workers are not included in the headline unemployment rate, which can provide an incomplete picture of the labor market.
  • The reasons for worker discouragement can be complex, making it challenging to address their specific needs effectively.
  • Addressing the causes of worker discouragement may require significant policy changes and investments.

Frequently asked questions

What are discouraged workers?

Discouraged workers are people who are eligible and able but not actively seeking work. Specifically, these workers have not tried to become gainfully employed in the last four weeks and have given up on searching for work typically because nothing is suitable.

How many discouraged workers are in the U.S.?

In June 2022, there were 364,000 discouraged workers in the U.S. This was a sharp decrease from June 2021, when there were 631,000 discouraged workers.

Why are discouraged workers not counted as unemployed?

An unemployed person is defined as someone who is able and eligible to work and has been actively looking for work in the last four weeks. Discouraged workers are able and eligible but not currently looking for work. More specifically, discouraged workers have not actively looked for work in the last four weeks; therefore, they are not counted as unemployed.

How can policymakers address the issue of discouraged workers?

Policymakers can address the issue of discouraged workers by implementing various measures. These may include creating job training programs to enhance the skills of discouraged workers, providing education subsidies to make them more employable, and offering tax credits to companies that hire long-term unemployed individuals. Additionally, policymakers can collaborate with businesses and organizations to promote inclusive hiring practices and remove barriers to employment.

Do discouraged workers receive any financial support or benefits?

Discouraged workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits as they are not actively seeking work. However, some may receive other forms of financial support, such as disability benefits or assistance from social welfare programs, depending on their individual circumstances and eligibility. It’s essential for discouraged workers to explore available support options in their region.

Key takeaways

  • Discouraged workers have stopped seeking employment due to a lack of suitable job options or unsuccessful job applications.
  • Causes for worker discouragement can range from technological changes in the workplace to reliance on disability insurance.
  • Understanding the U-4, U-5, and U-6 unemployment measures is crucial to assessing the underutilization of labor.
  • Policymakers use data on discouraged workers to develop targeted plans for their reintegration into the labor force.
View Article Sources
  1. Persons outside the labor force who want a job – Bureau of Labor Statistics
  2. Concepts and Definitions – Bureau of Labor Statistics
  3. Unemployment and discouraged workers – Carleton College
  4. Labor Force Characteristics – Bureau of Labor Statistics
  5. Navigating the Maze of Underemployment – SuperMoney