The sharp drop in the work force 661,000 fewer people showed that more of the jobless are giving up on their search for work. Once people stop looking for jobs, they are no longer counted among the unemployed.
When discouraged workers and part-time workers who would prefer full-time jobs are included, the so-called "underemployment" rate in December rose to 17.3 percent, from 17.2 percent in November. That's just below a revised figure of 17.4 percent in October, the highest on records dating from 1994.
Many analysts had hoped Friday's report would show the economy gained jobs for the first time in two years. While the revised figures found an increase in November, it was tiny. Job openings remain far too few.
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"One word sums it up: Disappointment," said Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse.
Referring to the drop in the labor force, Basile said, "that tells me that Main Street doesn't believe there's a recovery yet, because they're not out looking for jobs yet."
Revisions to the previous two months' data showed the economy actually generated 4,000 jobs in November, the first gain in nearly two years. But the revisions showed it also lost 16,000 more jobs than previously estimated in October.
The report caps a disastrous year for U.S. workers. Employers cut 4.2 million jobs in 2009. And the unemployment rate averaged 9.3 percent. That compares with an average of 5.8 percent in 2008 and 4.6 percent in 2007. Nearly 15.3 million people are unemployed, an increase of 3.9 million during 2009.
"The economy is in a rough situation," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press. She said she thinks companies are reluctant to ramp up hiring because they're waiting to see what new stimulative steps the government might take to provide relief.
The economy has lost more than 8 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. And while layoffs have slowed, they haven't ended. UPS said Friday it will . And defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. said this week it is cutting 1,200 workers.
White House Council of Economic Advisers Christina Romer called the report a "setback" but said it was "consistent with the gradual labor market stabilization we have been seeing over the last several months."
"As the president has said for a year, the road to recovery will not be a straight line. …It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report, positive or negative."
But most economists worry that 2010 won't be much better. Federal Reserve officials, in a meeting last month, expressed concern that unemployment will decline "only gradually," according to minutes of the meeting released earlier this week.
In an effort to jumpstart job creation, President Obama is set to announce new funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act designed to support tens of thousands of clean energy jobs and promote the manufacture of advanced clean energy technologies including solar and wind power, reports CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.
According to a USA Today report, the field with the fastest projected growth is biomedical engineering, which pays a median wage of $77,400. Unfortunately, less than 12,000 jobs in the field are expected to be created over the next decade.
If jobs remain scarce, consumer confidence and spending could flag, potentially slowing the economic recovery. Many analysts estimate the economy grew by 4 percent or more at an annual rate in the October-December quarter, after 2.2 percent growth in the third quarter.
But the economy will need to grow faster than that to bring down the unemployment rate. And economists worry that much of the recovery stems from temporary factors, such as government stimulus efforts and businesses rebuilding inventories.
Debra Winchell has been seeking work since last January, when she lost her job as an administrative assistant at the health insurance company. Winchell, 50, of Latham, N.Y., said she's seen an uptick in online job postings, giving her some hope. But they're for jobs paying as little as $10. And she's still not getting any callbacks when she does apply.
With her unemployment benefits set to run out this spring, Winchell, who is single, said she will reluctantly sign up for temporary work.
"I'll be lucky if it pays the bills," she said.
Still, some economists said a recent trend of improvement remains in place. The economy lost an average of nearly 700,000 jobs in the first three months of last year, a figure that dropped to 69,000 in the fourth quarter.
And the private service sector added jobs for the second straight month, said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at Global Insight, though the gains have been concentrated in temporary workers.
"Firms are still being very cautious, so the first thing they are turning to aren't full-time employees, but temps," he said. Companies have added about 166,000 temp workers since July.
The average work week remained unchanged at 33.2 hours, near October's record low of 33. Most economists hoped that would increase, as employers are likely to add hours for their current employees before hiring new workers.
Job losses remained widespread: manufacturing lost 27,000 jobs and construction shed 53,000, while retailers, the leisure and hospitality industries and government also cut workers.