The Myth of Part-Time America

The Part-Time America specter is a scare story that works better as a scare than a story.
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Liberals and conservatives agree: "Welcome to Part-Time America!"

The numbers are out to scare you. "Of the 963,000 jobs created in the past six months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Household Surveys, 936,000 of them are part-time," Harold Meyerson writes. The predictions will scare you more. The Wall Street Journal foretells a time when Obamacare's employer mandate will force small businesses across the country to move swaths of workers to part-time rolls, narrowly ducking the law's penalty.

The scare stories are good scares, but they're not good stories, since they start at the end and forget the beginning and middle. The truth about Part-Time America is that a part of America has always been working part-time, and there's not much evidence that we're seeing a terrifically new phenomenon.

The first thing you would expect from a true Part-Time America is a growing number of part-time workers. Instead, there are fewer Americans working less than full-time for economic reasons now than just about any time in the last three years. Here is your jagged line of part-time work, meandering its way downward (WSJ).

Zoom out four decades, as San Francisco Fed does, and you get another graph making an argument against Part-Time America as a new phenomenon. Part-time work rises when the economy stinks. It falls when the economy improves. That shouldn't surprise anybody. But in Part-Time America, you would expect the share of part-time workers to be historically high and rising after the recession. Again, it's not. "The level of part-time work in recent years is not unprecedented," the researchers find.

Another look. Here is the ratio of part-timer workers to unemployed workers. In Part-Time America, you would expect that ratio to be historically out of whack today, as well. It's not.

Across the Internet, economic writers are calling out: Is there no responsible way to terrify my readers about the awful future of part-time work? And yes, there is a responsible way. It begins with marriage demographics.

Although we're not seeing historically unprecedented levels of part-time work in the aggregate figures, single men and single women are more likely to be working part-time than any year in the last four decades. You can blame it on the rise of single moms and dads, who have to balance work and childcare. You can blame it on the rise of retail and food service jobs, which are more likely to staff part-timers. You can even try to blame it on Obamacare, although the evidence isn't as friendly there.

Just because right now Part-Time America is an overblown crisis manufactured to fit headlines rather than statistics doesn't mean the stats won't eventually catch up to the headlines. The future of work in America is fraught and uncertain. But there is a difference between prophecy and analysis.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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