Given another option, lots of people would take a pass.

Photographer: Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

Land of Full Timers and Wannabes

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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Part-time work is much less common in the U.S. than in most developed countries. There are a lot of possible reasons for this, some cultural, some policy-related. The fact that affordable health insurance in the U.S. has long been hard to acquire for those who aren't working full-time has probably pushed some people in the U.S. to work more hours than they would prefer. On the other hand, full-time jobs in some European countries come with so many perks and protections that employers avoid creating them, which probably pushed some people there to work fewer hours than they would prefer. High income tax rates in some countries may damp the desire to work more hours as well.

In any case, there's a marked difference, as shown in this chart that ran with a piece I wrote earlier this week about the differences between U.S. labor markets and those in other rich countries:

But what about the historical trajectory in the U.S.? Is part-time work more or less common than it used to be?

Well, here's the chart going back to the late 1960s. I should note that in the U.S. part-time is defined as less than 35 hours a week, while the international comparison above from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines it as less than 30 hours a week. That tells you something right there.

The percentage of employed Americans working part-time rose steadily through the late 1960s and the 1970s as women -- who are much more likely to work part-time -- entered the labor force in large numbers. Since the early 1980s the overall trend was little changed even as women's labor-force participation continued to grow, until a sharp spike in part-time work starting in 2008.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics separates part-time workers into those who worked less than 35 hours a week for economic reasons (slack work or business conditions, couldn't find full-time work) and those who worked part-time for non-economic reasons (family or personal obligations, school). The former group are the involuntary part-timers -- people who would work full-time if the economy were better.

Before the Great Recession, the trend line here sloped downward. Then came that spectacular Half-Dome-like trajectory since 2008. If you draw a trend line for this chart now, it has a slight upward slope. My guess is that the number of involuntary part-timers will keep declining until the next recession, and the trend will go back to flat or down.

Overall, then, there's not much evidence here of a secular rise in part-time work in the U.S. during the past three decades (that is, since the early 1980s). A couple of caveats: People working in multiple jobs that add up to 35 or more hours a week count as full-timers in this accounting. Also, young workers (ages 20 to 24) are twice as likely to be involuntary part-timers than other workers are, so maybe newcomers to the workforce are encountering a new, less full-time-oriented reality. Or maybe it's just that, as the new guys, they're most likely to have their hours cut. On the whole, though, work in the U.S. remains full-time work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net