Since the start of the Great Recession over six years ago, labor force participation has dropped significantly. Most of the drop—roughly three-quarters—was due to the lack of job opportunities in the Great Recession and its aftermath. There are now 5.8 million workers who are not in the labor force but who would be if job opportunities were strong.
It is possible that some of these missing workers who are at or near retirement age have given up hope of ever finding decent work again and decided to retire early. Such workers may not ever be drawn back into the labor market, even when labor market conditions substantially improve. It is important to note, however, that more than 70 percent of the 5.8 million missing workers are under age 55. These missing workers under age 55—4.2 million of them—are extremely unlikely to have retired and are therefore likely to enter or reenter the labor force when job opportunities substantially improve.
If the missing workers were in the labor market looking for work, the unemployment rate right now would be 10.0 percent instead of 6.6 percent. That is a lot of additional slack in the labor market that the official unemployment rate is not picking up. In any assessment of how much slack there is in the labor market, it is essential to keep the missing workers in mind.