Missing: 3.6 Million Americans

When you lose your job and stop looking for work, you disappear from the labor force. You're not considered employed. You're not considered officially unemployed. You're just ... missing. Or to use the industry term, you're discouraged.

As Annie Lowrey writes, the recession has produced a nationwide subclass of former-workers and would-be workers who have simply given up on the American economy:

Increases in the size of the United States' population mean the labor force should have expanded by around 3.5 million workers during the 30 months between the start of the recession and last month. Instead, it has lost 128,000 people. Those 3.6 million make up a class of "missing workers," people who in better economic times would be producing goods and services, and contributing to the United States economy.

And it doesn't end there. When they come back to the workforce, they still might not be counted regularly. That's because the BLS doesn't consistently track freelancers, part-timers and contracters even as their numbers have skyrocketed over the last few decades.

Between 1995 and 2005, by one count, the number of self-employed independent contractors grew by 27 percent to almost nine million workers. That number should grow exponentially as companies look to add hands while keeping costs down by hiring folks who don't require full benefits packages.

Official unemployment doesn't include discouraged workers, and official employment doesn't include the growing part-time economy. What does it all mean? Consider the official numbers with a grain of salt. The unemployment rate goes down and up, and jobs news vacillates on a weekly basis, but if you take the numbers too literally, you're missing the whole story.