Bullying and 4 Other Reasons Americans Are Leaving the Workforce

George McFly from Back To The Future experiences bullying at the hands of Biff
George McFly from Back To The Future experiences bullying at the hands of Biff. | Universal Pictures

Though the unemployment rate has dropped considerably over the past several years, a good number of Americans are still out of work. Some of them are in economically ravaged areas — places where the economy simply never recovered after the Great Recession. Others are in a more advantageous position, choosing to forgo work to return to school. Or even retire. Few of us, however, would think that something like bullying would be driving people from the workforce.
But it’s happening. Bullying has become such a problem that it’s literally causing people to quit their jobs. We’ll get to that soon.
The point is that roughly a third of the country isn’t working. They’re sitting out of the workforce. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The country is still producing goods and services, in addition to creating new and innovative technologies. But the trend is undeniable, as you can see toward the end of this graph:
Labor force participation rate
Labor force participation rate | FRED

Since the Great Recession — and even around 2000, really — people have been leaving the labor force. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can be a sign that people are economically secure enough that they don’t have to work. Or, it can mean that there aren’t enough jobs out there, and people are being left behind.
It’s fair to say that a lot of people are being left behind. But there are also plenty of unfilled jobs out there. So, why are people leaving the labor force? There isn’t one answer. A complicated blend of factors are at work. Here are five of them.

1. Bullying

A bullied, lonely young man
Bullying can be so bad that people don’t return to work. | iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

We’ll start with bullying, as mentioned previously. While a lot of people might think bullying is only something that happens at school or on Xbox Live, many folks deal with it at work. Daily. So much so that they end up leaving the workforce to escape it. A study from Aarhus University and Copenhagen University revealed that it leads to women taking prolonged sick leave. Men simply stop working. It’s evidently a big problem — and one that doesn’t have a clear remedy.

2. Retirement

retirement label on jar filled with coins
Retirement is an obvious exit from the workforce. | iStock.com

While bullying is a serious issue in the workplace, millions more of Americans are leaving their jobs for a better reason. They’re retiring. This is partly a demographic phenomenon, as the baby boomers are hitting retirement age. And there’s a psychological pull to want to get your hands on those Social Security checks. Simply put, a big reason the labor force participation rate has dropped is because the boomers are retiring. This is only a partial explanation, however.

3. School

young man walking outside with a backpack over one shoulder
Many jobs require further education. | iStock.com

Some people are retiring. Others are going back to school or getting further job training. This is another reason we’re seeing the workforce shrink. As noted, retirement among boomers is one big reason. But another factor, as Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor, told U.S. News & World Report, is continuing education.
“The second factor is education – people getting more education and staying in school longer. If you get an MBA, you’re out of the labor force for three years. If you get a Ph.D., you’re out of the labor force for 5 years, maybe 7 years,” he said.

4. Disability and unemployment

A man stands in front of a job board
Many people struggle to find work. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You’ve probably heard some politicians expressing worry that people will become dependent on government. There’s something to that, evidently. People are applying for unemployment insurance and disability at higher levels than before. This may speak to the fact that big swaths of the country are still struggling. This is also something we don’t see reflected in the official unemployment rate. If people aren’t looking for jobs, they’re not counted as unemployed.
But they are counted as not being in the workforce and attributing to the lower labor force participation rate.

5. Video games

Two men playing video games together
These people are apparently living the dream. | Thinkstock

Believe it or not, video games have become a labor force issue. Economists have found that there are huge numbers of able-bodied, working-age men who are not working because they’d rather play video games all day. You can take that as a good sign: If they don’t need to work and can still survive, that’s a good thing. Right?
Skyrim and San Andreas are fun to explore and all. But are they worth sacrificing a career over? For as much as 22% of men between the ages of 21 and 30, it appears so.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger.