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March 1991, Vol. 114, No. 3
P art-time employment makes up a growing share of jobs in the United States. At first glance, this trend might appear to be driven by workers' preferences: aren't employers simply accommodating the wishes of housewives, students, retirees, and others who prefer short-hour schedules? This explanation might have been valid during the 1950's and the 1960's. However, since 1969, part-time jobs have expanded primarily because more employers view them as a means to cut labor costs, and not because more workers want them. In fact, involuntary part-time workers-part-time workers who would prefer full-time hours-account for most of the growth in part-time employment's share of the work force since 1969. To explain the continuing expansion of part-time employment, we must look to changes in labor demand, not labor supply.
Part-time employees comprise almost one-fifth of the U.S. work force. About 20 million people in the economy's nonagricultural sectors worked part-time1 in 1989, making up 18.1 percent of persons at work. A full 92 percent of these part-timers reported that they usually worked part time, and almost one-quarter of them-close to 5 million people-were involuntary part-time workers who would have preferred a full time job. (These figures represent averages over 12 months; about twice as many people worked part time at some time during the year.2 )
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1 In this discussion, a Bureau of Labor Statistics definition of part-time employment is used. Part-time workers include everybody working fewer than 35 hours per week, except for those who usually work full time but who have lost hours for noneconomic reasons. Part-time workers are considered involuntary if they report that they are working part time because of slack work, plant downtime, starting or ending a job during the week they are surveyed, or the inability to find a full-time job. The data series is derived from the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of households conducted for BLS by the Bureau of the Census. It is only one of a number of series on part-time work produced by BLS.
2 See Sylvia Lazos Terry, "Involuntary part-time work: new information form the Current Population Survey," Monthly Labor Review, February 1981, pp. 70-74.
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