Home / Population and society / Articles / It’s not just the pandemic: women have been leaving the labor force for more than 20 years

The pandemic caused shifts in the American economy, with 3.1 million people leaving the labor force since January 2020. But men and women didn’t leave the labor force at equal rates.

Labor force participation is the number of Americans who are 16 years and older and currently working or looking for work. It is a sum of the unemployed and currently employed population.

About 1.9 million fewer women participated in the labor force in September compared to January 2020, the equivalent of 1.2% of the current labor force. In comparison, about 1.1 million men dropped out of the labor force during that time.

In April 2020, 54.6% of women 16 and older were working or looking for work, the lowest rate since 1985. That statistic has rebounded to 55.9% as of September 2021 but is still almost two percentage points short of the January 2020 figure.

The year-to-date average rate of women labor force participation is the same as it was in 1987 at 56%. Labor force participation, like unemployment rate, is not back to pre-pandemic levels but has recovered steadily.

The decline in the percent of women working or looking for work isn’t unique to the pandemic. Women’s labor force participation increased throughout the 20th century, peaking at 60% in 1999. This is partly due to the baby-boom generation, people born between 1946 and 1964, reaching traditional retirement age and leaving the job market.

The 2021 rate of women in the labor force is the same as it was in 1987.

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But younger generations of women were also participating in the labor force in lower rates. According to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women ages 25-54 participated in the labor force less since 1999. About 76.7% of women in the age group were working or looking for work in 2000 compared to 73.7% in 2015.

This is especially true for women with less education. In 2000, about 56% of women in the age group without a high school diploma were in the labor force. By 2015, that dropped to about 49%. About 75% of women high school graduates ages 25-54 were working or looking for work in 2000 compared to 67% in 2015.

Labor participation rates for prime working age groups are dropping as baby boomers age.

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During the pandemic, women left the labor force at greater numbers than men but also for different reasons.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of data on people who are not in the labor force but want to work and are available to do so. This group is called marginally attached workers. They are not counted as unemployed people because they have not searched for a job in the last four weeks. As of September 2021, about 49% of marginally attached workers are women vs 51% of men.

The two of the most common causes women left the labor force entirely were for family reasons or for school or training. Of those who left the labor force for family responsibilities from July 2021 through September, 66% of them were women and 34% were men. While men historically left the labor force more often for school or training reasons, more women have left for this reason since the start of the pandemic, on average. From January 2020, an average of 72,700 women have left for school or training compared to an average of 71,500 of men.

Women are leaving the labor force for family reasons more than men.

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Women of different races and ethnicities participate in the labor force at slightly different levels. Black women have the highest participation rates of any specific race or ethnicity group in 2021 at 58.8%, for race or ethnicity groups with populations of 2 million or greater. White women have the lowest participation rate in the most recent data at 53.3%. Since 2000, about 2% more Black women participate in the labor force on average compared to white women.

Asian women increased their labor participation rate by almost 4% since the pandemic began, from 53.6% in April 2020 to 57.7% in September 2021.

Labor participation rates for white, Black, and Hispanic or Latino women have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Data on labor force participation for women of two or more races, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander or American Indian or Alaskan Native is not available for 2021 since each group has fewer than 2 million people in the labor force.

While most racial groups have not returned to pre-pandemic rates of labor participation, rates for Asian women increased almost 4%.

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The labor participation rate will continue to be a strong indicator of economic recovery. For more data on the nation’s economic recovery from the pandemic, visit the COVID-19 Impact and Recovery Hub.

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Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey
BLS Data Finder 1.1