Full-time and Part-time Employment: A Deeper Look

This article was originally written by Doug Short. From 2016-2022, it was improved upon and updated by Jill Mislinski. Starting in January 2023, AP Charts pages will be maintained by Jennifer Nash at Advisor Perspectives/VettaFi.

Let's take a closer look at the latest employment report numbers on Full and Part-Time Employment. Buried near the bottom of Table A-9 of the government's Employment Situation Summary are the numbers for Full- and Part-Time Workers, with 35-or-more hours as the arbitrary divide between the two categories. The source is the monthly Current Population Survey (CPS) of households. The focus is on total hours worked regardless of whether the hours are from a single or multiple jobs.

The Labor Department has been collecting this since 1968, a time when only 13.5% of US employees were part-timers. That number peaked at 20.1% in January 2010. The latest data point, over ten years later, is lower at 16.8% last month.

Here is a visualization of the trend in the 21st century, with the percentage of full-time employed on the left axis and the part-time employed on the right. We see a conspicuous crossover during the Great Recession. Since early 2016, the two cohorts have slowly drifted apart, with full-time employment gaining.

Interestingly, this trend has continued, even during the COVID-19 global pandemic and recession. As of December 2022, Full-time employment made up 83.2% of all employment.

Here's a longer-term view of this same chart.

Let's compare the reasons for part-time employment in 2019, 2020, 2021:

As you can see, more part-timers in 2019 "voluntarily" took part-time work, while this number dropped in 2020 due to the pandemic. In fact, in 2020 over 33% more part-timers "involuntarily" took part-time work than in 2019. Economic reasons include slack work or business conditions, could only find part-time work, seasonal work, or job started and ended during the week. These figures have dropped back to figures similar to 2019.

Let's have a closer look at why some employees involuntarily took part-time work and why.

The Impact of the Great Recession

Here is a closer look since 2007. The reversal began in 2008, but it accelerated in the Fall of that year following the September 15th bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. In this seasonally adjusted data, the reversal peaked in January of 2010.

Even though some employees shifted to Part-time from Full-time as a result of the pandemic, it was only about 3% of those working Part-time. Full-time employment peaked in April 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly as a result of a shift in the type of full-time work available. The trend after the Great Recession has continued despite the pandemic and the two types of work seem to be growing farther apart.

A Closer Look at the Core Workforce, Ages 25-54

The two charts above are seasonally adjusted and include the entire workforce, which the CPS defines as age 16 and over. A problem inherent in using this broadest of cohorts is that it includes the population that adds substantial summertime volatility to the full-time/part-time ratio, namely, high school and college students. Also, the 55-plus cohort includes a subset of employees that opt for part-time employment during the decade following the historical peak earning years (ages 45-54) and as a transition toward retirement.