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What is a Labor Force?

Daniel Liden
Daniel Liden

In economics, especially labor economics, the labor force is defined generally as people of working age who, employed or unemployed, are either working or looking for work. Generally, people below working age or above retirement age are not considered to be part of the labor force. In most places, working age begins between ages 14 and 16, while retirement age tends to be around 65 years old. Full-time students, people in the military, the long-term sick and disabled, and those with unreported incomes are also not counted in the force.

One important concept related to the labor force is unemployment. One is considered unemployed if he currently has no job but is willing and available to work. The unemployed, then, are considered to be a part of the labor force despite the fact that they are not actually producing any labor. On the other hand, those who desire jobs but have quit actively seeking them because of discouragement or other factors are not considered to be a part of the force. A high unemployment rate is generally a bad thing as it means there are many people who want to work but not enough jobs to go around.

People who are able to work are part of a labor force, whether they are employed or not.
People who are able to work are part of a labor force, whether they are employed or not.

Another important concept used by economists is labor the force participation rate, which is a ratio of the size of the labor force to the total population of working age people in a given area. It is used to analyze trends and changes in the workforce. The participation rate increased drastically, for example, when women started working in greater numbers. Previously, they were of working age but not working, so the participation rate was much lower. The participation rate also describes the effects of a large influx of workers to the work force; if there are not enough jobs available, total employment and total unemployment can both increase.

Generally, people above 65 years old are not considered to be part of the labor force.
Generally, people above 65 years old are not considered to be part of the labor force.

The size of the labor force is largely dependent on the economic conditions at any given time. When an economy is running smoothly and productively, the force should be large and only a small fraction of individuals in the force should be unemployed. Generally speaking, in a good economy, those who want jobs can find them and people are unlikely to become discouraged and leave the labor force. On the other hand, when an economy is not doing well or is in a state of crisis, the force will likely decline as the rate of unemployment increases and people become discouraged.

Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - That’s good news. The problem however is that many workers are discouraged and quit looking for work. These people skew the unemployment data.

Some people ask, are discouraged workers part of the labor force? I say they are, because no matter how bad things get, you still have something to contribute to society.

When you were working you had some skill, some talent that was useful to your employer. What you need to do is find a way to leverage that skill in a new business somehow.

Even if it means running ads in the local paper or through a networking site, find a way to sell yourself to the public as an independent businessperson. That’s what a lot of people do in a downturn. When the economy picks up again, you will be handsomely rewarded in my opinion.


I was laid off once, and I admit it was discouraging. That was my first real taste of involuntary unemployment. But I hit the pavement, sending out hundreds of resumes and job applications, and within three months I received three job offers. I was deliriously happy.

I realize that doesn’t happen for everyone but I do believe that persistence pays off. I would encourage anyone in similar circumstances to keep trying. If you were in an industry that was particularly hit hard by an economic downturn, use the free time to learn new skills.

Sharpen your interview skills as well and begin to network. No matter how bad the economy is, the reality is that the majority of people are still working, and that employers are still hiring.


My grandmother told me that back in the day when women started entering the labor force in droves, men gave them a really hard time. This was in the days before sexual harassment lawsuits and protection from gender discrimination.

She began working at a factory when she was only twenty-three. She said that guys would whistle at her and make her feel uncomfortable.

The boss was a male, and he tended to treat his new female employees a bit like housekeepers. They were expected to do their actual jobs, but he also made them get him coffee and clean the bathrooms.

If a man were to treat a woman this way today, she would look at him like he was crazy and flat-out refuse. Even so much as a wayward comment could be grounds for sexual harassment charges.


@GreenWeaver – I'm not certain of this, since I've never actually drawn unemployment, but I have heard that you have to accept a job offer if it pays at least as much as you were making with your former job. Otherwise, you will lose your benefits.

My employer had to do some downsizing recently, and I feared I might get cut. I asked other people who had drawn unemployment in the past about it, and they said that the only offers they were able to refuse were those that offered ridiculously little pay.


I do freelance work, but since I report my income and pay my taxes, I am considered a part of the labor force. I think it's a shame that some freelancers don't get the respect they deserve just because they don't have one exclusive employer and full-time benefits.

I have several family members who tell me that what I have is not a real job. I beg to differ. I work around seven hours a day, five days a week designing logos and writing content for business websites. I pour my creativity into my jobs, and I am tired at the end of the day, just like everyone else.

When people put my job down, I tell them that I will gladly show them evidence that I pay into the system like they do. I give my fair share to the government and to society, so no one can tell me otherwise.


After nearly a year of looking for a job, I became discouraged. I was living with my parents after having lost my former job, and I was beginning to lose hope.

I knew that I couldn't sit around and do nothing for the rest of my life, so I decided to train myself to do some new things. That way, I would become a valuable candidate for employment, and I would increase my chances of reentering the labor force.

I spent a few months teaching myself some new computer programs by reading about them from books and practicing with them on my parents' computer. The programs I was studying were some of the most common ones that employers required office workers to be knowledgeable about.

I did find a job within a few months, and my new skills helped me on my new job. I was glad that I didn't give up altogether and become a drain on the system.


@Sunshine31- You know I wonder how the extended unemployment benefits affect the labor work force statistics. I realize that there are a lot of people on unemployment that could not find a job. My question is how many of these people that are getting benefits for 99 weeks have stopped looking for a job and decided to start looking a few weeks before their money runs out.

I am not sure the 99 weeks of unemployment pay encourages people to look for work. Many people receiving these funds will be a little pickier about the jobs they select because when they find a job they will have to give up the unemployment compensation cushion. I know that unemployment benefits are important, but 99 weeks seems excessive.


I also think that as technology improves many jobs that were once held by someone in the labor work force will now be automated and essentially eliminated as a potential job.

This is especially true in difficult economic times when companies are struggling to earn a profit. I think that people that are actively looking for work should really look at the industries and jobs that are most in demand.

Specialization of the labor force causes workers to be more marketable to employers and raise the chances of them finding a job. For example, the demand for a dental hygienist is high and specializing in this field could almost ensure that someone that is unemployed and received training in this field could find a job.

It is not easy to switch careers especially when your expertise is in something else, but I think that changing with the times provides the best employment options in the future.

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    • People who are able to work are part of a labor force, whether they are employed or not.
      By: imageegami
      People who are able to work are part of a labor force, whether they are employed or not.
    • Generally, people above 65 years old are not considered to be part of the labor force.
      By: wildworx
      Generally, people above 65 years old are not considered to be part of the labor force.