The civilian labor force in the U.S. amounted to around 164.29 million people in 2022, making it one of the largest in the world. In economic terms, a distinction is generally made between the labor force, the general population, and the number of employed people.
TrendsThe labor force participation rate is the ratio between the labor force and the overall size of the working aged population. In the U.S., this includes people aged 16 years or older living within the 50 states and D.C., who are not inmates of institutions, or on active duty in the Armed Forces. While participation increased significantly in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century as more women joined the workforce, the rate has slowly declined since the turn of the century primary due to the Baby Boomer generation reaching retirement age.
On average, the number of years an individual spends working for the same employer has been declining since 2014. However, the pandemic ushered in of a mass exodus of workers voluntarily separating from their employers at new levels. Workers cited low pay, disrespect, and lack of advancement opportunities as their top reasons for seeking employment elsewhere. For parents, especially mothers, additional pressures have contributed to their leaving the work force since the start of the pandemic.
High quit rates usually reflect high confidence among the workforce in their ability to find a new and higher-paying job, indicating high economic stability, and generally low unemployment. However, despite higher quit rates in the years following the pandemic, the possibility of recession is increasing heading into 2024.
The shape of the labor forceWhile the shape of the U.S. labor force is changing as Gen Z move into, and Baby Boomers move out of the workforce, certain trends remain. Despite a general increase in the number of women entering the labor force, and a downward trend in male labor force participation, women have yet to reach parity with their male counterparts – and that is unlikely to change. This is thought to be in-part due to the increased time women spent on household and caregiving responsibilities compared to men. To accommodate these expectations, women are much more likely to work on a part-time basis compared to men.
The United States also has a long history of welcoming immigrants and benefitting from the economic value they bring. In fact, foreign born workers in the country have higher rates of labor force participation compared to native born workers. Foreign born workers are particularly important to industries such as construction and extraction occupations, as well as building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations.
Populous states such as California, Texas, Florida, and New York have the highest number of employed persons, while more rural states such as Wyoming, Vermont, and Alaska have the least. Across industries, the education and health services industry employs the most people across the country, with more than 35 million employees. The professional and business services industry employs a further 20.63 million people.
The future of U.S. employmentLooking to the future, participation rates are expected to decrease across all age brackets between 16 and 44 – as fertility rates have and continue to decline – and increase for those over the age of 45 – as older workers stay in the workforce for longer. There is disagreement as to whether or not the Great Resignation will have lasting effects on the workforce, but the high numbers of voluntary quits have continued throughout 2022 and into 2023. The future economic stability of the U.S. is likely to have further unforeseen impacts on employment and the shape of the labor force.
The unemployment rate is expected to increase once again in 2024 and remain above four percent until 2028. The most growth is thought to come to food services and drinking places as well as individual family services over the next decade. Retail locations, as well as government services are expected to have the largest declines over the same period.