Tracking Part-Time Work: Some Surprising Details and a Look Ahead

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The share of part-time workers in the U.S. labor force rose to unusually high levels during the recession of 2007-2009 and has fallen only slowly during the subsequent recovery. As the following chart shows, the share of workers putting in less than 35 hours a week hit a low of 15.5 percent of the labor force in October 2007 and then rose sharply to a peak of 18.1 percent in May 2009. As of December 2013, the share of part time work was still over 17 percent, less than halfway back to the pre-recession low.

Many observers find the trend toward part-time work alarming. In her blog for the New York TimesCatherine Rampell writes, “One of the more unsettling trends in this recovery has been the rise of part-time work. We are nowhere near recovering the jobs lost in the recession, and the track record looks even worse when you consider that so many of the jobs lost were full time, whereas so many of those gained have been part time.”

Elsewhere, a writer for the Minnesota Budget Project laments, “Many workers are struggling to climb out of the Great Recession. They are still looking for jobs, working part time, earning less than they did before the recession, or accepting jobs that don’t meet their abilities.” How worried should we be? To understand what is going on, we need to dig beneath the summary statistics shown in the chart and look the details, some of which I find surprising.

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