You may have noted the unemployment rate went down the other day, in part because so many people left the labor force - for a variety of reasons, sure, but many of them were discouraged workers. A discouraged worker doesn't just describe a state of mind. That's an official term referring to people who gave up their job searchers because they couldn't find anything. And according to the Labor Department, there were 844,000 of them last month.

The overall labor force - which in normal times grows - is actually shrinking. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Both Geoff Dutton and his wife, a neuroscientist, have PhDs. But for years now, neither has found work. Dutton spent years writing software manuals. At 68, he says he can't afford to retire, yet finding a job also feels out of reach.

GEOFF DUTTON: My skills were beginning to slip away. I wasn't up on the new version of everything anymore. Software was turning to the cloud and the Web. The companies that were in that area, you know, kept looking for people who had been in that area, and that wasn't me.

NOGUCHI: But discouraged workers like Dutton aren't the only ones not in the job market anymore. Because the U.S. population is growing, the pool of those working or looking for work should also be increasing. Instead, the labor force is slightly smaller than it was four years ago, meaning millions of people who should be there, aren't.

But there's little conclusive information about who these people are, or what they're doing instead. Courtney Coile is an economist at Wellesley College who studies older workers.

COURTNEY COILE: It really looks like people are limping across the finish line to retirement.

NOGUCHI: One man I interviewed in his 60s gave up looking for work after his stock portfolio recovered. But Coile says a very small percentage of labor force dropouts can claim to be so lucky. In fact, the numbers suggest less educated, long-term unemployed people are turning elsewhere.

COILE: It looks like the disability insurance programs function as a unemployment insurance of last resort.

NOGUCHI: The number of people on disability insurance has increased more than 20 percent in the last four years. Going back to school isn't an attractive option for workers in their 50s, but school enrollment is increasing, because of people like Lara Jones, who opted to retrain after losing her job as a contractor for Microsoft.

For two years, employers told her she was under qualified for programming jobs but overqualified for grocery store work.

LARA JONES: I was doing all the things they said you're supposed to do. You know, customizing your resume to job postings. I was getting good feedback on my interview skills. I was doing all the things you're supposed to do, but it wasn't working.

NOGUCHI: So, at 44 years of age, Jones secured financial aid, and enrolled in community college. Next year, she hopes to transfer to the University of Washington and become a software engineer - a skill she knows is in demand. But, she admits, it is odd being old enough to be your classmate's mom.

JONES: I did an internship over the summer, and it's just really weird to be 44 and be an intern. That's sort of uncomfortable. It's weird when your teachers are roughly the same age that you are.

NOGUCHI: For Carol Bellows, the tradeoff of going back to school in her 40s did not pay off.

CAROL BELLOWS: I regret going to school. I regret being in that debt. I made more money as a ballet dancer than as a landscape architect.

NOGUCHI: Now 57, Bellows lives in Tigard, Oregon. Her degree did get her a good job, but it only lasted a year.

BELLOWS: I got a bonus check, at Christmas.


BELLOWS: All those things that I'd been hearing about for years, about, you know, with real jobs. And, you know, I had health insurance, and it was just truly amazing.

NOGUCHI: Since 2008, her only job has been a temporary gig with the Census. Recently, she gave up looking. She says it simply made sense. Her job search took a lot of time, which meant household chores fell to her husband.

BELLOWS: He's actually asked me to drop the, you know, job search, and take care of things, so that the rest of our life doesn't fall apart.

NOGUCHI: Bellows says making money is not the only thing she misses.

BELLOWS: It felt like I couldn't even participate - excuse me, this is really emotional now. You can't participate in society. You can't go to the store and buy something, because you can't afford to. You can't go to a firm and have a Christmas party.

NOGUCHI: She says she still hopes to work again someday. But sometimes it feels like it would be easier to win the lottery. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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