Civilian Labor Force

What Is the Civilian Labor Force?

Civilian labor force is a term used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to categorize the portion of the U.S. civilian population that it considers either employed or unemployed. Military personnel, federal government employees, retirees, handicapped or discouraged workers, and agricultural workers are not part of the civilian labor force.

Key Takeaways

  • The civilian labor force refers to employed or unemployed individuals, who are not active-duty military personnel, institutionalized individuals, agricultural workers, and federal government employees.
  • Retirees, handicapped and discouraged workers are also not part of the civilian labor force.
  • The civilian labor force is considered misleading by some experts because it excludes discouraged and handicapped workers.

Understanding the Civilian Labor Force

According to the BLS, the civilian labor force is made up of two components:

  1. Civilian workers: This category includes all private sector, state, and local government workers. Workers—or "employed persons" in the language of the Current Population Survey—are defined as people 16 years old or older who did at least one hour of paid work (or unpaid work in their own business) in the survey's reference week, or who did at least 15 hours of unpaid work in a family business. Active-duty military personnel, institutionalized individuals, agricultural workers, and federal government employees are excluded.
  2. Unemployed people: This category does not simply include anyone who lacks a job. An unemployed person must have been available for work during the survey's reference week (discounting temporary illness) and made "specific efforts" to find a job during the previous four weeks. People who would like to work but have given up due to lack of opportunities, an injury, or illness are considered to be outside the labor force.

Unemployment Rate and Participation Rate

This definition of the labor force is often at odds with colloquial usage, leading non-experts to feel misled when they realize that millions of discouraged and handicapped workers are excluded from the unemployment rate—defined as the unemployed population divided by the civilian labor force.

The BLS offers other indicators of joblessness, the most comprehensive being the U-6 rate, which includes people who are employed part-time but would prefer full-time work, as well as discouraged and other "marginally attached" workers who have looked for a job within the past 12 months, but not the past four weeks. Critics of the standard U-3 measure of unemployment call U-6 the "real unemployment rate."

The BLS also calculates the civilian labor force as a share of the entire civilian population (everyone 16 or older who is not institutionalized or on active duty). This measure, called the civilian labor force participation rate, rose consistently from 58.6% at the beginning of 1965 to a peak of 67.3% at the beginning of 2000. Since then it has been steadily falling, with a particularly notable drop recorded at the beginning of 2020—the period when lockdown measures were introduced to tackle the COVID-19 outbreak.

Retirements have a negative effect on labor force participation rates. In recent times, the baby boomer generation, which fueled America's productivity during much of the 1970s and 1980s, has begun retiring, causing a drop in the labor force participation rate. Recessions and the automation of jobs also adversely impact the labor force participation rate.

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  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." Accessed May 6, 2021.

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