Why Aren’t People Going Back to Work?

As the U.S. economy improves, more and more people are moving off of unemployment and back into the workforce, right? Not exactly. While the number of people who are unemployed has dropped significantly in recent years, another key statistic has not followed suit: The labor force participation rate—the percentage of people 16 or older who have jobs or are looking for work—has fallen to its lowest level since 1977, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). At 62.8 percent in May 2015, it’s lower than it was when President Obama took office in 2009. Why aren’t more people going back to work?

Is it because they don’t have the money to pay for childcare?


Paid family leave, government-subsidized childcare and shorter hours are all policies that could help parents re-enter their fields of work. Without these things, parents may think twice about going back to work — even when they want to. Is it because they don’t have the money to pay for childcare? Paid family leave, government-subsidized childcare and shorter hours are all policies that could help parents re-enter their fields of work. Without these things, parents may think twice about going back to work — even when they want to.

Are they waiting until their children start school?


According to a 2011 report from Pew Research Center, more parents are going back to work before their children begin school. A majority of people surveyed in 25 countries, including France and Germany, said mothers should return to work sooner after giving birth than they did in previous generations. What’s keeping them at home? Many women say they’re waiting until their children start school; others don’t believe they’ll be able to afford childcare or find a good fit for their child. In some cases, women want more time with their new baby; in others, there’s an issue with balancing family obligations with career goals. What do you think is behind women delaying going back to work after having a baby? Are moms trying too hard not be tied down by motherhood?

Is it because they can afford to stay at home on a partner’s income alone?


The United States is known for being a country where people hold dearly onto their jobs. But in recent years, that’s changed: More and more Americans are choosing not to go back to work after their children start school or turning down promotions or raises so they can stay home with their families. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in 2011, 46 percent of women with children under 18 stayed at home full-time—an increase from 24 percent in 1970. And a majority of mothers over 40 say they’d choose full-time parenting over a high-powered career (56 percent). So it seems like those who do go back to work only do so reluctantly—especially if there’s financial stability and opportunity for advancement within walking distance.

They can’t find a job in their industry or location


If you’re currently unemployed, it might be tough to get a job and pay your bills. This is especially true if your résumé doesn’t have that much work experience or relevant positions. That said, there are plenty of jobs out there—you just need to know how to leverage them and make an offer that an employer can’t refuse. While working in a remote position allows flexibility with family (most of which allow telecommuting), employees don’t earn as much money as they would working onsite at corporate headquarters or other local employers.

The cost of commuting is too high, especially for low-income households.


For many, going back to work doesn’t make sense when commuting costs are so high. Nationally, workers and their families spend $1 trillion annually on transportation costs. That works out to more than $7,000 per commuter per year. While most of these costs are unavoidable—think gas and vehicle maintenance—many of them can be mitigated through changes in behavior or consideration for public transportation options. Additionally, because lower-income workers tend to live farther from their places of employment than higher-income individuals do, they often face increased transportation expenses that can eat up a larger portion of monthly budgets.

Retraining programs aren’t reaching everyone who needs them.


It’s been two years since the recession, and for many companies that were hit hard by it, it’s time to get back to business as usual. But millions of Americans who lost their jobs can’t go back because they don’t have up-to-date skills or they live in a place that offers few new job opportunities. The problem is only getting worse as time goes on: More than three quarters of employers say it has become more difficult in recent years to find skilled workers.

Employers aren’t making family friendly enough offers.


As much as we love to take care of our families, having a job is essential. We have bills and debts that need paying and expenses that can’t be put off while one parent decides when she or he wants to go back. Having a job (even part-time) provides not only income, but valuable training and experience for any profession, so leaving a job open while you stay home may make it harder to find one later on. Employers often don’t realize that employees might need—or even want—to work part-time or leave early once in awhile after their child arrives.

Women still earn less than men and take time off for childcare.


According to a Pew Research report, a full-time working woman makes 79% of what a man makes. And yet women spend twice as much time on unpaid work as men do, meaning they’re not just making less—they’re also missing out on career opportunities. That same Pew study found that if women returned to work after taking time off for child care, their annual earnings would increase by 20%. To learn more about how female workers can advance their careers, check out our Women in Leadership Series.