As employment numbers continue to grow across the United States, a small but notable share of workers in the labor force are only working part-time hours.
The Minneapolis Fed recently put a spotlight on part-time work trends in the Ninth District. While the part-time employment rate has declined since the 1990s, these workers still make up over 20 percent of the employed population in the region as of 2022.
But these part-time employment trends are not simply the result of some people wanting to work less. Data from the federal Current Population Survey show that part-time work varies across age, race, and sex, and for different personal and economic reasons.
Part-time work at opposite ends of the age spectrum
Age is a major factor associated with part-time employment rates. Employed teenagers (16 to 19 years old) work part time at higher rates than any other age bracket in the Ninth District, followed on the other end of the age spectrum by workers older than 64 (see Figure 1).
Teenagers work part time mostly due to school obligations. Seniors often do so because of retirement, which can give them more flexibility. Some retirees still have a need for supplemental income, and others may work part time to avoid breaching income limits that would require Social Security payments to be taxed.
Thirty years ago, however, older workers and teenagers worked part time at rates that were much closer together. But the rate of part-time employment among seniors has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points over this time as more older workers seek full-time hours. At the same time, the share of workers aged 16 to 19 who are employed part time has been rising modestly over the years, likely due to changing expectations for young people regarding school and full-time labor.
Racial gaps in part-time employment rates
Part-time employment also differs across racial and ethnic groups in the Ninth District, but these gaps are most pronounced when looking at the reasons why they work part time.
One of the fundamental ways economists try to understand part-time work is whether it is for noneconomic or economic reasons, otherwise referred to as “voluntary” or “involuntary” part-time employment.
Among workers who choose part-time work for noneconomic (or voluntary) reasons—such as school, family obligations, or retirement—White workers had higher rates than other racial and ethnic groups over the last few decades. However, these differences have narrowed somewhat of late.
Over time, the voluntary part-time employment rate for White workers declined while the rate mostly increased for Black, Asian, and Latino workers in the region. By 2022, the shares of people choosing part-time work had largely aligned across most racial and ethnic groups (see Figure 2).
Differences across racial groups are larger among workers who are part time for economic (or involuntary) reasons, such as poor labor market conditions or reduced hours. These workers want to work full time but can only find part-time work. Over the last thirty years, Black, Latino, and Native American workers consistently had to work part time because of economic reasons at significantly higher rates than White and Asian workers across the Ninth District.
These gaps widen substantially during labor market downturns (see Figure 3). In the years following the Great Recession, the part-time employment rate among Black workers in the district surged, with nearly 10 percent working part time due to economic reasons compared with just under 4 percent of White workers. While the job market improved by 2022, these gaps across race and ethnicity persist at lower levels.
Women in the part-time workforce
Women consistently work part-time hours at higher rates than men in the Ninth District regardless of race, ethnicity, and age bracket. As of 2022, 26 percent of employed women in the region worked part time compared with just 15 percent of employed men.
The part-time employment rate for women has steadily declined since 1994 (see Figure 4). This decline has continued in a post-pandemic world, indicating employed women are currently working full-time hours at higher rates than they have in the past.
Meanwhile, the part-time rate for men has stayed more consistent over time, with some minor increases in recent years.
More differences emerge when breaking down the reasons why men and women work part-time hours.
Historically, women have worked part time for economic (involuntary) reasons at higher rates than men, but that difference has narrowed in recent years. The share of men and women working part time due to economic conditions in the Ninth District converged after 2020 and is at the lowest level reported in the last 30 years.
Women also have significantly higher rates of noneconomic (voluntary) part-time employment, and the underlying reasons for working part time vary between the sexes.
For example, over 25 percent of female part-time workers in the district did so because of family and personal obligations and child care problems, while only 6 percent of male workers worked part time for the same reasons (see Figure 5).
On the other hand, male workers work part time due to school or because of retirement (and/or income limits) at higher rates compared with female workers.
Some of these differences likely stem from the fact that working women tend to shoulder more responsibility for caregiving and housework than men do. These added responsibilities can make working part time a more manageable employment option for some women, even if they might prefer full-time work.
Haley Chinander is a research assistant in Regional Outreach at the Minneapolis Fed. She focuses on data collection and research related to current business conditions and broader, long-term trends in the Ninth District economy. Follow her on Twitter @haleychinander.