People outside the labour market

Data extracted in November 2018.

Planned article update: June 2019.

The inactivity rate of those aged 55-64 fell by 16.4 percentage points for men and by 23.1 pp for women from 2002 to 2017.
The inactivity rate of women aged 25-54 ranged in 2017 from 9.7 % in Slovenia to 32.7 % in Italy.
76 % of inactive persons aged 25-54 have not worked during the last two years: 46 % last worked more than two years ago and 30 % have never worked.
Inactivity rates by sex and age, EU-28, 2002-2017 (%) - Source: Eurostat

This article analyses labour market participation in the European Union (EU), broken down by sex and age, on the basis of the results of the EU Labour force survey (EU-LFS). In 2017, the number of economically inactive persons as a percentage of the working age population (15-64) in the EU-28 reached a new low of 26.7 %, continuing the downward trend of the previous years. This positive development is largely due to the increased participation of women in the labour market. The economically inactive population remains a heterogeneous group, e.g. as regards age, reasons for inactivity and the level of attachment to the labour market.

Full article

Fewer people outside the labour force in 2017

This statistical article analyses the economically inactive population, i.e. the population that is neither employed nor unemployed. Since 2002 and despite the economic crisis, the share of the economically inactive population in the total population of working age[1] has fallen from 31.4 % to 26.7 % in 2017 in the EU-28 (see Figure 1). This corresponds to a reduction of 14.6 million inactive persons.

Figure 1: Inactivity rates 15-64 by sex, EU-28, 2002-2017 (%)
Source: Eurostat (lfsa_argan)

The decline in inactivity rates is mainly due to the rising participation of women in the labour force. The share of women outside the labour market fell during that period by 7.3 percentage points, from 39.5 % to 32.2 %, while the share of men outside the labour force decreased by only 2.1 percentage points (from 23.2 % in 2002 to 21.1 % in 2017). As a consequence, the gender gap decreased continuously in the EU during this period of time, from 16.3 p.p. in 2002 to 11.1 p.p. in 2017.

This decreasing trend in the gender gap is visible in almost all Member States: while 11 countries had a gender gap above 15 p.p. in 2002, only 4 countries exceed this limit in 2017. The situation remains however quite heterogeneous among countries: while the gender gap was lower than 7 p.p. in 2017 in the Nordic countries, in Lithuania, Latvia, Slovenia and Portugal, it remains well above the EU average in Malta (23.2 p.p.), Italy (19.1 p.p.), Romania (18.0 p.p.) and Greece (16.1 p.p.). The latter countries are the ones where participation of women in the labour market is the lowest (less than 60 % of women aged 15-64 are in the labour market in Romania and Italy in 2017).

The inactivity rate depends heavily on sex, age and education level

This decreasing pattern in the inactivity rate hides very contrasting situations depending on the age group (see Figure 2). More than half of men and women aged 15-24 are outside the labour force in the EU-28 in 2017. This high number is explained by the fact that most people in this age group are still in education or training. Faced with a tightening labour market, young people differ their entry on the labour market, remaining longer in education, staying longer at their parents' home (see the article on Youth unemployment). Consequently they are not available for work and/or do not seek work. Looking at the trend since 2002, the share of inactive people in the age group 15-24 has been increasing for both women and men, but remains stable the last year decreasing even a bit for women.

The population in the age group 55-64 has experienced the strongest decrease since 2002, mostly explained by the widespread adoption of policies to promote active ageing. The inactivity rate of men aged 55-64 fell by 16.4 percentage points (from 48.6 % in 2002 to 32.2 % in 2017) and by 23.1 pp for women (from 69.3 % in 2002 to 46.2 % in 2017).

The category 25-54 is by far the largest of the three groups in terms of population, but it is also the age group experiencing the lowest inactivity rates. In this group, the inactivity rate of men is stable at a very low level (8.4 % in 2017). This can be seen as a structural situation, as the ratio remains stable whatever the economic situation is (before or after the crisis of 2008). The inactivity rate of women aged 25-54 is continuously decreasing, but remains very high compared to that of men (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Inactivity rates by sex and age, EU-28, 2002-2017 (%) - Source: Eurostat

The consequence of very high inactivity rates for people aged 15-24 and 55-64 is even more visible in absolute figures, with a number of inactive people being similar in the three age groups while having very different population size. Indeed, in the EU-28 in 2017, the age group 15-24 encompasses 31.6 million inactive people out of a total of 54.3 million people. In the age group 25-54, 29.8 million persons out of 207.8 millions were inactive. Finally, 26.1 million persons out of 66.1 millions were inactive in the age group 55-64 (see Figure 8).

Another determining factor of inactivity is the educational level attained. Persons with a high educational level are less likely to be inactive. In 2017 and for the whole EU-28, the inactivity rate of persons in the age group 25-64[2] who had attained a low educational level (i.e. less than lower secondary) was 35.4 %, as compared to 19.5 % for persons with a medium educational level (at least lower secondary level, but less than tertiary) and 10.8 % for persons with a high (i.e. tertiary) level. This means that the likelihood of staying out of the labour market is more than 3 times greater for the low educated than for highly-educated people. This relationship between education and inactivity applies irrespective of sex and age.

Young people in education

Young people tend not to be in the labour force: in 2017 in the EU-28, 58.3 % of men and women aged 15-24 were inactive, making a total of 31.6 million persons. The rate of inactivity in this age group ranges from 31.7 % in the Netherlands and 36.7 % in Denmark to 75.0 % in Greece, 73.8 % in Italy and 73.7 % in Bulgaria. Differences between countries are largely explained by the number of young people combining studies with participation in the labour market (having or seeking a small side job)[3].

The incidence of and reasons for inactivity of men and women in this age group do not reveal gender differences comparable to those observed in older age groups. Being in education is by far the most frequent reason that both sexes give for inactivity (52.3 % for women and 49.1 % for men in the EU-28 in 2017). The biggest gender-related difference in this age group is that 3.1 % of women report family responsibilities as their main reason for not looking for a job, while for young men this is extremely rarely the case. Exceptionally, in Turkey 26.4 % of inactive women aged 15-24 report family or personal responsibilities as the main reason for inactivity (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Inactivity rates of young persons (15-24) by sex and main reason for not looking for a job, 2017
Source: Eurostat

Family responsibilities main cause of inactivity of women aged 25-54

The prime working age in the EU is between 25 and 54 years. This is also the age when families are started and children are raised. It is in this age group that the gender differences of the inactivity rate are more pronounced. In 2017, 8.4 % of men in this age group were inactive in the EU-28 compared to 20.3 % of women. The inactivity rate of men was lowest in the Czechia (4.3 %) and Malta (3.8 %) and highest in Croatia (13.3 %) and Bulgaria (12.0 %). The inactivity rates of women aged 25-54 ranged in 2017 from 9.7 % in Slovenia, 11.2 % in Sweden and 11.9 % in Lithuania to 28.0 % in Malta and 32.7 % in Italy. Turkey recorded 56.3 % of women aged 25-54 being outside the labour market.

In the EU-28, almost half of the inactive women aged 25-54 were inactive for personal or family reasons (9.7 % out of the 20.3 % of inactive women), while only 0.7 % of men give this as the main reason (see Figure 4). The EU-LFS only collects the main reason although other reasons might exist.

Figure 4: Inactivity rates of prime-aged people (25-54) by sex and main reason for not looking for a job, 2017
Source: Eurostat

Apart from personal or family responsibilities, the differences between the genders are minimal. Approximately the same number of men and women in this age group are inactive due to sickness/disability, education or retirement: 5.1 million men and 5.3 million women.

Women aged 25-54 have higher inactivity rates if they are mothers of young children aged 6 or under: 28.5 % compared with17.5 % (for women aged 25-54 without small children) in the EU-28 in 2017. For men the opposite is true: if there is one or more young children in their household, men's inactivity rate in the EU-28 was 4.1 %, compared to 9.7 % if no such child was present in the household. Those patterns, due to the presence of children, work in the same direction in every country. In addition, the inactivity rates of women with children increase with the number of children, whereas inactivity rates of men hardly change (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Inactivity rates of persons aged 25-54 by presence of own young children (0-6 years), 2017
Source: Eurostat - EU-LFS

32 % of men and 46 % of women aged 55-64 are inactive

Persons aged 55-64 years are less active on the labour market than the younger age groups. This is particularly true for women, as half of the women aged 55-64 are inactive (46.2 %, compared with 32.2 % for men in the EU-28 in 2017).

The inactivity rates of men were highest in Luxembourg (54.5 %) and Slovenia (48.2 %) and they were lowest in Sweden (16.8 %) and the Netherlands (20.5 %). On the women’s side, the inactivity rates were as high as 69.4 % in Malta and 65.1 % in Greece, and as low as 22.2 % in Sweden and 27.6 % in Estonia. Inactivity rates are particularly low in Iceland: only 9.1 % of men and 20.1 % of women in this age group are inactive.

Retirement is the most frequent reason given by men in this age category for being outside the labour market. 16.9 % of the total male population in this age group were retired. The second most common reason is illness or disability, with 9.2 % of the male population in this age category inactive for this reason.

Retirement is also the most frequent reason for the inactivity of women in this age group, with 18.9 % of them giving this as the main reason in 2017. Personal or family responsibilities (7.1 %) and own illness or disability (9.2 %) are other non-negligible causes for inactivity among women in the EU-28 in this age category. Unlike for men, however, the pattern for women is less consistent across the Member States. Cultural or specific national factors might lead survey respondents to distinguish differently between their main reason for inactivity and other reasons. In some countries, personal or family responsibilities are the main reasons given in this age group for female inactivity, with retirement being the prevailing reason in other countries (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Inactivity rates of older persons (55-64) by sex and main reason for not looking for a job, 2017
Source: Eurostat - EU-LFS

76 % of inactive persons aged 25-54 have not worked during the last two years

The concept of an economically inactive population encompasses people with very varying degrees of attachment to the labour market. This can be seen, for instance, by looking at their previous working experience, i.e. how many of them have previously worked and for how long ago.

Among the young inactive persons aged 15-24 in the EU-28 in 2017, the overwhelming majority (90 %) have never worked before; 8 % have worked during the last 2 years and only 2 % last worked over 2 years ago. This means that most of these persons have not yet entered the labour market, and those who have done so retain some attachment in the form of a relatively recent previous job.

Among inactive persons in the prime working age group 25-54, the distribution shifts significantly: 23 % have worked in the last two years, 46 % last worked more than two years ago and 30 % have never worked. This shows a rather high degree of labour market detachment, as 76 % have not worked during the last 2 years.

Finally, among the inactive population aged 55-64, 21 % have worked in the last two years and 69 % have worked more than two years ago and only 9 % have never worked. This shows that, with age, most people do eventually have some contact with the labour market, but for many the connection does not last. This type of analysis shows hardly any difference between men and women.

Figure 7: Inactive persons by age group and previous work experience, EU-28, 2017 - Source: Eurostat
Note: the sum of shares may differ from 100% because of rounding effects

20 % of the economically inactive population are interested to work

Economically inactive persons are defined by the fact that they do not have a job and are either not actively looking for a job or are not immediately available to work (or both), i.e. they are neither employed nor unemployed. Most of them, but not all, are not interested to work. Actually people economically inactive have a varying degree of attachment to the labour market, which can be analysed from the viewpoint of their behaviour with regard to the three following main variables: Do they want to work? Are they actively seeking a job? Are they available to start immediately in a new job? These variables are interrelated. For instance, some people who are not available to work do not even consider whether they want to work (this is the case for many students). Instead, for other jobless persons, the lack of immediate availability is not an impediment to seeking a job, which indicates a much stronger attachment to the labour market.

Figure 8 sheds more light on those groups with breakdowns by age, sex and reasons for not seeking a job or wanting to work. The sum of those who found a job to start later, those seeking a job but not immediately available to work and those wanting to work is 16.6 million persons, or 19.0 % of the economically inactive population[4].

Figure 8: Labour market attachment of persons aged 15-64 in EU-28, 2017 (in 1 000s).png - Source: Eurostat

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources


All statistics presented in this article are derived from the European Union Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS). The EU-LFS is a quarterly, large sample survey providing results for the population in private households in the EU, EFTA and the candidate countries (except Liechtenstein).

Reference periods

Data in figures 1 and 2 are annual averages of quarterly EU-LFS data. Data in figures 3 to 8 are annual data because the variable 'reasons for not working' is not collected on a quarterly basis. Figures 5 and 7 use annual data for consistency with other reported data.


The concepts and definitions used in the EU-LFS follow the guidelines of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

  • Inactivity rate is the share (in %) of the inactive population in the total population in the same age group living in private households.
  • Young Child is any individual younger than 7 years at the end of the reference week.
  • Parent (father or mother) is any person who lives in a private household with one or more children who are that person’s own children or the children of his or her spouse.
  • Reason for inactivity is the main reason why somebody is not seeking employment. The main reason may or may not be the only reason. Only the main one is retained for analysis in this article.
  • Willingness to work is assumed if a person explicitly states that he or she is willing to work.
  • Availability to work means availability to start working in the next 2 weeks.


Council Decision 2010/707/EU of 21 October 2010 on guidelines for the employment policies of the Member States demands that policies be put in place to increase the labour market participation of women and men, and to promote labour market participation for those furthest away from the labour market.

The EU headline target, on the basis of which Member States will set their national targets, taking into account their relative starting positions and national circumstances, is to aim to raise the employment rate for women and men aged 20-64 to 75 % by 2020, including through the greater participation of young people, older workers and low-skilled workers and the better integration of legal migrants. Calculating employment rates for these specific groups will help monitor the success of Member States' policies.

LFS main indicators (t_lfsi)
LFS series - Detailed annual survey results (t_lfsa)

LFS main indicators (lfsi)
LFS series - Detailed annual survey results (lfsa)


  1. The working age is conventionally set at 15-64 years of age. Above this age more than 95% of persons are economically inactive, hence supporting this convention.
  2. Young persons aged 15-24 are omitted from this comparison as many of them are still in education.
  3. On the interplay between participation in education and in the labour market for young people, see 'Participation of young people in education and the labour market'.
  4. On the population outside the labour market having a certain degree of attachment to the labour market, see also 'Underemployment and potential additional labour force statistics '.
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