A Closer Look at Full-time and Part-time Employment

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.

In May, the number of full-time workers fell by 625,000, the biggest decline since December 2023. Meanwhile, the number of part-time workers increased by 286,000.

The Labor Department has been collecting this since 1968, a time when only 13.5% of US employees were part-timers. Over 55 years later, the total number of part-time workers has reached 17.4%.

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 noticeable crossover during the Great Recession when part-time work increased, and full-time work declined. Over the past year, we have seen a similar crossover slowly form.Full time and part time employment since 2000

The Impact of Recessions on Employment

Let's zoom in a bit closer to see the impact of the Great Recession on employment. We’ve changed the start date of our next chart to the beginning of 2007. The reversal began in 2008, but it accelerated in the fall of that year following the September 15th bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. In January 2010, shortly after the official end of the recession, part-time work peaked at 20.1% while full-time work reached an all-time low of 79.9%. Afterwards, the two cohorts slowly drifted apart, with full-time employment increasing. Interestingly, this trend continued even during the COVID global pandemic and recession. It was only until recently that we started to see a slight reversal in this trend, with full-time work slowly declining while part-time work is on the rise. As of May 2024, full-time employment made up 82.6% of all employment.

Full time and part time employment since 2007

Here's a longer-term view of this same chart. With the extended timeline, we can see a few more examples of what has typically happened to these two kinds of work during a recession. You’ll notice that the recessions from the early 90s and early 2000s saw similar action as the Great Recession: Full-time work declined while part-time work rose. But again, this was not the case during the most recent recession in 2020. In fact, full-time employment peaked in April 2020, possibly because of a shift in the type of full-time work available at the start of the pandemic. There were some employees who shifted to part-time from full-time as a result of the pandemic, however it was only about 3% of those working part-time.

Full time and part time employment since 1986

One more interesting feature in the chart above is the dramatic change in the full-time/part-time ratio at the beginning of 1994. In January 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. This was a trade agreement between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, aimed at reducing barriers to trade and investment among the three countries. While NAFTA led to increased trade and economic growth overall, it also had various effects on employment. Some industries saw an increase in part-time work due to outsourcing or changes in demand, while others experienced a decline in full-time positions.