At a time when the United States is struggling with labor shortages, nearly 20% of prime-age adults—approximately 24 million Americans aged 25-54 — are not working. The vast majority of these people, roughly 21 million, are not even looking for work and are therefore “out of the labor force.” Only three million prime-age adults are seeking work and so are “unemployed”.
A recent BPC-Artemis Strategy Group poll found that personal health and caregiving responsibilities are significant barriers to work for prime-age adults, with 72% of prime-age adults who are out of the labor force citing one of these as the main reason they are not working. This blog provides further insight that could inform policies aimed at bringing those who are not looking for work into the workforce.
1. Prime-age adults not looking for work are more likely to be female, have children, and be older
It is unsurprising that family caregiving is such an important barrier for prime-age adults not looking for work when 59%—an estimated 12 million people—are legal guardians of at least one child. This compares to just 41% of those who are looking for work.
It is also striking that 66% of prime-age adults not looking for work—an estimated 14 million people—are female. In contrast, females make up only 38% of those prime-age adults actively looking for work. This disparity suggests that there are systemic or situational barriers preventing women from seeking employment. Addressing these barriers and encouraging more prime-age women to enter the labor force could significantly reduce the gap in labor force participation between males and females, and make for a more productive workforce.
2. While almost two-thirds of prime-age adults not looking for work may be open to working in the future, few have near-term plans to enter the workforce
Thirty-seven percent of those not currently looking for work—or roughly 8 million people—do not plan to ever enter or return to the workforce. For these individuals, personal illness, injury, or disability was the most common factor contributing to their non-working status, with 63% citing this.
Sixty-three percent of those not currently looking for work—an estimated 13 million people—may be open to working at some point in the future, but it may be quite some time until they do so. Only 13% (estimated at less than 3 million people) intend to work within a year, while 23% (roughly 5 million) do not plan to work for at least a year. For individuals who intend to enter the workforce in the future but are not looking for work now, our polling shows that personal health (60%) and caregiving responsibilities (59%) are the most prominent barriers to work. Acting now to remove these barriers may enable more prime-age adults to enter the workforce in the near-term.
Further, 26%—estimated at over 5 million people—are unsure when they will begin working in the future. Our polling shows that these individuals are more likely than others to cite health issues as relevant (69%) but less likely to cite care-related barriers (49%).
3. More than one-third of prime-age adults not looking for work cite disability or serious illness as the main reason for not being employed
Our polling suggests that 35% of prime-age adults not looking for work —an estimated 7 million people—cite disability or serious illness as the main reason for not being employed. This compares to just 14% of those who are looking for work. Furthermore, 50% of those out of the workforce —estimated to be over 10 million people—say that personal illness, injury, or disability is a factor that prevents them from working.
Not all of these individuals will be able to work, however, workplaces could explore reasonable accommodations to assist those with disabilities or illnesses in joining the workforce. Recent data from the Labor Department shows the potential here, with remote work opportunities helping drive nearly 1.8 million people with a disability to join the labor force since just before the pandemic hit the U.S. – a 28% increase since February 2020.
4. Part-time work is most appealing to prime-age adults not looking for work
Flexible working conditions are important to those not in the labor force. Two-thirds of prime-age adults who are looking for work would consider full-time employment, but only 20% of prime-age adults not currently looking for work would consider this. Instead, prime-age adults not looking for work are much more favorable to part-time work, with almost half of this group—estimated at just under 10 million people—open to this option.
Prime-age adults not looking for work would prefer part-time work, self-employment, and gig work to full-time work. This suggests that employers could fill open vacancies by offering flexible work arrangements, and lawmakers should consider policies that remove barriers to pursuing part-time, self-employment, and gig work.
5. A majority of prime-age adults not looking for work have been out of work for over three years
Fifty-nine percent of prime-age adults not looking for work—estimated at over 12 million people—have not worked for three years or more. Furthermore, 20%—estimated at over 4 million people—have not worked for 10 years or more.
This presents a challenge. People who have not worked for an extended period may need additional training to enable them to participate in the workforce productively. Indeed 26% of prime-age adults not looking for work —estimated at over 5 million people—cite too much time out of the workforce or obsolete skills as barriers preventing them from working. Employers, educators, and the government should keep this in mind when acting to get prime-age adults to enter the workforce. Areas BPC has explored include expanding workforce Pell Grant eligibility and targeted efforts to upskill the workforce in vital emerging technologies.
Removing barriers to labor force participation will be key to addressing the current labor shortage. The BPC-Artemis Strategy Group poll suggests that effective policies have the potential to bring people back into the labor force and reduce the gap in labor force participation between males and females.
Some effective actions include removing family caregiving barriers, ensuring workplaces accommodate disabled individuals, providing flexible working options, and providing retraining opportunities where necessary. Business and government action now would boost the labor force participation of prime-age adults.
Artemis Strategy Group surveyed a national sample of 2,165 non-working U.S. adults, ages 20-54 (excluding full-time students ages 20-24) to understand the potential barriers to entering the workforce. The national sample included 539 non-working adults who are looking for work (often labeled as unemployed) and 1,626 non-working adults who are not looking for work (often labeled as not in the labor force). The latter category represents 85% of prime-age non-working Americans. This subtle distinction enabled BPC and Artemis to evaluate and compare two very different populations. The 539 adults who were unemployed and looking for work included an oversample of 252 individuals (relative to their proportion of the non-working prime-age population). The survey was conducted from July 14-26, 2023. In a few instances, figures may not add to reported sums due to rounding.
Notably, this blog reviews the results specifically for those ages 25-54, mirroring the traditional economic definition of “prime-age” adults. For this survey, BPC and Artemis also included non-working adults ages 20-24 who are not full-time students. While not reported in this blog, this population accounts for 10% of the sample in this survey and is often made up of parents with very young children. For a rundown of the full survey results, including those ages 20-24, please see our initial report.
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