Sign of the times.

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Full-Time Work Is Harder to Find

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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Since the jobs recovery began in 2010, the percentage of U.S. workers putting in fewer than 35 hours a week has been dropping, driven mainly by a decrease in the number of people who are working part-time but want full-time employment.

That always happens in a recovery. I’m curious about the long-run trend, though. As I’ve been saying a lot lately, there isn’t any good time-series data that tracks the growth (or lack of growth) of the freelance or gig economy through the decades. But many estimates of the size of this contingent or alternative workforce include part-timers, on the reasoning that part-time work also implies less commitment on the part of employer and employee than a traditional full-time job. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics does have monthly data on part-time work going back to 1955.

Here’s what it looks like, up through today’s employment report:

There was a secular rise in the 1950s through 1970s in the percentage of those working part time for noneconomic reasons, a rise that coincided with big increases in the percentage of women in the labor force. Since the late 1970s, this has gone more or less flat. The abrupt upward shift in 1994 was a result of a change in the survey question asked to differentiate noneconomic reasons for working part-time from economic ones. Here’s the extended explanation from the BLS and the Census Bureau, which is worth reading because it helps make the distinction between the two categories clearer:

Persons who work part time (fewer than 35 hours a week) do so either voluntarily (that is, because of personal constraints or preferences) or involuntarily (that is, because of business-related reasons such as slack work or the lack of full-time opportunities). Because respondents typically are not familiar with this distinction, the question asking why those working part time were doing so was reworded to provide examples of the two types of reasons.

As a result of the change in the question, more than a million people suddenly moved from the involuntary (economic reasons) category to the voluntary (noneconomic reasons) one. That means the pre-1994 percentages aren’t entirely comparable with the ones that followed.

With voluntary part-time work it’s easy enough to just look at the chart and conclude that the trend was pretty flat before the shift and pretty flat after. The movements in involuntary part-time work have a big cyclical component, though. In a recession, the share of involuntary part-timers rises. In a recovery, it declines. This makes it harder to see the trend, especially with the added complication of the 1994 survey change.

So I adjusted the data on involuntary part-time work (that is, part-time work for economic reasons), using the brute-force method of simply reducing the pre-1994 percentages by 1.1 percentage points -- the size of the shift in January 1994. Here’s the result:

With the adjustment, one can see that the percentage of involuntary part-timers in the last recession was the highest on record. And despite the decline since 2010, the current percentages are quite high by historical standards. The long-run trend is clearly upward . That may change if this recovery keeps going and going, and the percentage of involuntary part-timers keeps dropping. But for now, no, you’re not imagining it if you think it’s harder to get a full-time job than it used to be.

  1. Two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, using much more sophisticated but harder to explain statistical techniques, came to a similar conclusion in June.

  2. You’re also not imagining it if you think I’ve addressed this before and come to a slightly different conclusion; I didn’t notice the 1994 survey change last time.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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