When the government makes its monthly assessment of unemployment, as it did this past Friday, the numbers are expressed as part of the "civilian labor force." What is the civilian labor force, and who is and is not included within it?

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When the government makes its monthly assessment of unemployment, as it did this past Friday, the numbers are expressed as part of the “civilian labor force.” What is the civilian labor force, and who is and is not included within it?

The size of the civilian labor force fluctuates from month to month. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who aren’t in the military, prison or some other institution are eligible for inclusion in the official civilian labor force. As of last month (and after adjusting for seasonal variations), that amounted to 234.1 million people.

Subtract from that people younger than 16 and people who neither have a job nor are looking for one — because they’re in school, retired, disabled, busy with family responsibilities, or are simply disheartened — and you end up with a civilian labor force of 154.9 million. Of those, the BLS counted 145.5 million as employed, down 342,000 from July. Nearly 9.4 million Americans were counted as unemployed, 592,000 more than in July.

Some observers have criticized the official unemployment figures as misleading. For example, laid-off workers are considered unemployed as long as they are looking for new jobs. But if they get discouraged and give up, they are no longer considered part of the labor force and thus stop contributing to the official jobless rate.

However, of the 79.2 million people deemed outside the civilian labor force, 4.8 million said they wanted a job but weren’t actively seeking one.

— Drew DeSilver, Seattle Times business reporter