Part-Time Jobs: A Lingering Recession or the New Normal?

Last summer, over 27,000,000 Americans (18% of workers) held a part-time job. Nearly 10 years after the recession began, this rate is still higher than pre-recession levels. This has prompted many to wonder whether this really is more of the slow recovery we’ve seen, or whether this marks a new normal where part-time work is all many workers are able to find.

We’re weighing in using data from over 12 million ZipRecruiter postings. Our reading is that current rates of part-time work are not the new normal, but a sign that we’re still recovering from the deepest recession in decades. That’s our take-away, but we’ll let the evidence speak for itself.

The Evidence

How Many Part-time Jobs?

Those who think part-time jobs are the new way of the world have a point: Part-time postings are rising, even though we’re getting further from the recession. Between January-March 2016 and June-August 2017, the share of ZipRecruiter postings for part-time jobs more than doubled, from 5% to 10%. But that’s only part of the story. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that over the same period of time, there was a modest decline in the share of workers actually holding part-time jobs.

More postings but not more workers. This means firms are having a harder time filling part-time vacancies. That’s probably because workers are finding better options. To us, this looks more like part of an economic recovery than a shift to a new kind of economy.

To see it a different way, part-time jobs make up a much larger share of active postings than new postings. This means they’re staying open longer, probably because they’re harder to fill. Either way you slice it, we think this points towards a slow recovery, not a new normal.

Our reading: Lingering recession

Who’s Hiring for Part-time Jobs?

Overall growth in part-time postings hides different industries’ experience. Digging into the data, we see that most industries are shifting away from part-time postings.

Figure 1 shows that the industries relying most on part-time jobs a year-and-a-half-ago now show the most movement towards full-time jobs. To us, it looks like they were lagging behind and are now catching up with the rest of the economy. These industries include many of those hardest hit by the recession, like Arts and Entertainment, Sports and Recreation, and Retail.

Fig. 1: Part-time Intensive Industries Shifting Towards Full-Time

Notes: Original analysis of ZipRecruiter postings in 24 industries. Larger circles are industries that have more total postings.

In fact, most of the overall increase in part-time postings was driven by the healthcare industry, where 11% of postings are part-time, compared to less than 3% a year and a half ago. While this is a large industry (and so its patterns are important), we don’t think its experience alone defines a new normal.

Our reading: Lingering recession

Where Are the Part-time Jobs?

Perhaps the best evidence that this is part of a slow recovery is that part-time jobs are concentrated in the cities hardest hit by the recession. We looked at large metropolitan areas, and compared a city’s part-time share of postings with its growth in unemployment from 2007 to 2010 (a measure for how bad the recession was). Figure 2 shows that the cities where the recession hit hardest (those to the right, seeing the largest increase in unemployment) tend to see more part-time jobs today.

Fig. 2: Cities Hit Worse by Recession Have More Part-time Jobs

Notes: Original analysis of ZipRecruiter postings in 53 large metro areas. Larger circles are cities with higher population.

Many of these cities are still struggling to recover from this recession, and we think that high rates of part-time work are one indicator of that continuing struggle.

Our reading: Lingering recession


Many part-time workers want full-time work and are surely wondering whether finding it is going to be a permanent challenge going forward. We don’t think so. Our analysis suggests that the prevalence of part-time work is a lingering symptom of the recession. We can’t say how long it will last (and we suspect no one else can either), but we can say that workers can rest assured that this isn’t the new normal.

Data sources: ZipRecruiter data, Current Population Survey (Jun-Aug, 2006; Jan-Mar, 2016; Jun-Aug, 2017), American Community Survey (2007, 2010).

Written by

Mitch Downey is an Assistant Professor of economics at the Institute for International Economic Studies in Stockholm and a former contributor to the ZipRecruiter blog.

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