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Over the past decades, part-time work is estimated to have grown worldwide. However, reliable data about how many people work part time is missing because part-time work has little relevance in many developing economies, where institutional structures for formal, time-regulated working arrangements are less common. In these countries, the hours of work are mainly driven by the need to secure an income. Hence, in countries with a small share of wage and salaried workers, such as in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, part-time work is less meaningful. In contrast, for countries in developed economies, such as the United States, Europe, the Commonwealth of Independent States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, part-time work has become highly relevant, especially for women, as models of reduced working times have been an important driver for increased female participation in (formal) labor markets.
Because of these differences, as well as diverging standards for “normal working time,” there is no universal definition of part-time work. According to the International Labor Organization, part-time employment covers regular employment in which working time is substantially less than normal. In a similar definition, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) covers all forms of part-time work, such as half-day work and work for 1 or more days a week. Whereas the category “full-time employee” is relatively homogeneous across OECD-countries, part-time work varies widely, covering any form of work from 20 percent or less to 80 percent or even more of normal working time. Data and classifications of part-time work are established according to different approaches, based on the workers perception of the employment situation, or a cutoff based on the usual working hours.
Scientific attention toward part-time work has been huge during the past decades, and the literature stems from different disciplines such as sociology, economics, human geography, and political sciences. Research interests and questions range from the motives for, and impacts on, the decision for part-time work, its social acceptance, and the status of part-time workers to the effects of part-time work on households on the microlevel and societies on the macrolevel. Moreover, part-time work is perceived in different contexts and ways, ranging from being a result of involuntary underemployment (of people seeking full-time employment), representing mostly bad jobs in terms of payment and career opportunities, to a voluntary strategy of people in wealthy societies who reduce working time to achieve a better work-life balance.
According to economic theories of household behavior, the reduction of working time is conceptualized as a choice of partnered households over their specialization of labor. Both partners have to decide on their share of house and market work. In the extreme case, one partner engages only in housework, whereas the other specializes only in market work, with several variants of incomplete specialization represented by different shares of house and market work by each of the partners. From this perspective, part-time work provides a means of combining two forms of labor, market and domestic production, while at the same time enabling persons to maintain human capital (e.g., knowledge, skills, and working experiences), which might become lost in periods of complete housework. While this approach is gender neutral, the gender identity hypothesis states that gender matters for decisions on part-time work. The general argument is that individuals act and decide within society’s constraints, so their behavior is affected by social customs and conditioning. Society’s prescriptions about appropriate models of labor and gendered codes of behavior influence the decisions of people, who strive for social acceptance and fulfillment of (conditioned) role expectations. Thus, the gender identity hypothesis predicts that males will always tend to offer less time for housework, whereas women might increase their life satisfaction by reducing market labor. Moreover, the economic situation of households and labor market regulations are additional variables that affect the acceptance and the importance of part-time work.
Global And Regional Patterns Of Part-Time Work
According to OECD statistics, western Europe and Japan showed high levels of part-time work in 2012 (more than 20 percent), whereas eastern Europe had the lowest levels (4.3 to 9.7 percent), and the United States and Canada ranged somewhere between 13.4 and 18.8 percent. The Netherlands had the highest share (37.8 percent), indicating that part-time work has become normal. Part-time work is predominantly common among women. Female part-time employment rates are particularly high in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In these countries, at least one out of three working women was engaged in part-time work in 2010. In each of the countries, part-time work is a female domain, with the female share ranging from 62 percent in Denmark to 92 percent in Luxembourg.
However, in Denmark, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, both the female share of part-time employment and the female part-time employment rates decreased after 2000, indicating that fewer women in these countries selected part-time work. Moreover, the increase in male part-time workers exceeded that of female part-time workers. In contrast, in Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Spain, both the female share of part-time employment and female part-time employment rates increased over time. These trends tend to cement the character of part-time work as a strongly female domain in the majority of countries in southern Europe. In the remaining European countries, the figures show an increase in female part-time employment rates, accompanied by a slight decline in the female share, indicating that men in these countries (especially Austria, Finland, Germany, and the Netherlands) have increasingly taken up part-time employment.
These remarkable differences raise the question about the driving forces for part-time work. In general, disparities in work hours are explained by constraints in the choice of options. These include rigidities in labor markets (e.g., from technical or organizational requirements of jobs), income restrictions, and the work-family conflict, which mainly affects dual-earner families. Rigidities in labor markets lead to a mismatch in demand and supply of working time, influencing the share of involuntary part-time work or underemployment. However, there is no general correlation between the number of full-time jobs and over-or underemployment. OECD statistics show that there are countries with a high share of part-time work and low levels of underemployment, such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Norway, and Denmark. Research supports the significance of income on the preference to work. High household incomes increase the preference for reduced working time, and vice versa.
Other economic variables that (negatively) influence part-time work are unemployment levels and income inequalities. The effect of the work-family conflict on part-time work is ambiguous. Studies for the United States support the hypothesis that a reduction of work time to coordinate family and work is mainly realized by women, whereas men tend to work full time, or even increase their working time. In cross-country comparisons, the gender effect is less strong, offering large differences between (mostly European) countries. However, recent studies based on the European Social Survey have shown that full-time working women with small children have a significantly stronger preference to reduce their working time than men in the same situation, or women without children. Moreover, the prevalence of part-time work depends on the acceptance of reduced working time. Countries with large shares of part-time work show significantly more preference among full-time workers for reduced working time. This implies that a growing share of part-time work helps to generally change the perception of full-time jobs as the norm on labor markets. At least in wealthy societies, people seem to trade off time needed for family and friends against their participation in paid work. A reduction of work hours serves as a means to reduce time pressure and to improve the work-life balance, the hours of work satisfaction, and general life satisfaction.
- Booth, A. L. and J. C. Van Ours. “Hours of Work and Gender Identity: Does Part-Time Work Make the Family Happier?” Economica, v.76 (2009).
- Laurijssen, I. and I. Glorieux. “Balancing Work and Family: A Panel Analysis of the Impact of Part-Time Work on the Experience of Time Pressure.” Social Indicators Research, v.112 (2013).
- Wielers, R., M. Münderlein, and F. Koster. “Part-Time Work and Work Hour: An International Comparison.” European Sociological Review, 20/1 (2014).