Americans are giving up the job search

May 2, 2014, 6:14 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The headline figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly jobs report were surprisingly cheery on Friday, with the agency reporting that nonfarm payroll employment rose by 288,000, beating expectations of 210,000 to 220,000 new jobs and pushing the unemployment rate down 0.4% to a five-and-a-half-year low of 6.3%.

But beneath those shiny surface numbers, there’s an ugly trend afoot: Fewer Americans are hunting for jobs.

There was hope that just the opposite would happen in April; that Americans who had previously been discouraged by poor job prospects would find renewed optimism. That prospect was quickly dashed by Friday’s jobs report, which revealed that the labor force declined by 806,000 people, or 0.4%. The labor force participation rate was 62.8% in April, matching the three-decade low reached in October and December of last year. It remains far behind the pre-recession levels, which were above 66%.

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What’s worse, the 6.3% unemployment rate and sagging participation rate are being attributed to a decrease in reentrants and new entrants to the labor pool.

Erica Groshen from BLS said, “Our analysis of the household survey suggests the labor force decline was mostly due to fewer people entering the labor force than usual, rather than more people exiting the labor force.”

Much of this likely comes down to the fact that 417,000 fewer jobless workers who’d dropped out of the labor force opted to try their hand in coming back to the job market in April than in March, which represents the largest drop in reentrants ever, according to BLS. There were also 126,000 fewer people looking for a job for the first time.

It isn’t clear why Americans are steering clear of the job search. One potential factor: The long-term unemployed — those without a job for 27 weeks or longer — have abandoned the job hunt since losing their insurance benefits due to a Congressional stalemate in December. In April, the long-term jobless dropped by 287,000 workers to 3.5 million. To keep unemployment insurance, individuals must prove that they’re still trying to find a job. Without the prospect of insurance benefits, the long-term unemployed are dropping out of the labor force. Who knows when they’ll return.

Baby boomers who choose to retire instead of seek employment could also be contributing to these numbers.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, there are the 1 million high school graduates who are not working, not looking for work, and not enrolled in further education, according to a report released Thursday by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Those idle 17-to-20-year-olds could also be part of this shift.

Then there’s the sluggish U.S. economic recovery, which has sapped optimism from Americans who once held long-term, full-time, well-paying jobs. Today’s jobs figures, even with the addition of 288,000 new jobs, won’t provide much hope. While the number of jobless Americans dropped by 733,000, the biggest dip since the recession began according to the household survey, the number of unemployed still stands at 9.8 million — about 2 million higher than what it was in January 2008.

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