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April 2001     Vol. 2, no. 4

Trends in part-time work

Henry Pold

For more than two decades the ranks of part-time workers marched steadily onward and upward. Through good times and bad times, the proportion of workers whose usual hours at their main job amounted to less than 30 per week kept climbing (Chart). At the end of the 1990s, however, a plateau seemed to have been reached. In 1999, the seasonally adjusted December estimate of part-time employment actually dropped on a year-over-year basis, but then bounced back somewhat in December 2000. But numbers can conceal as much as they reveal. A closer look at the data shows different trends for short-hour (less than 15) and long-hour (15 to 29) part-time workers.

The overall levelling-off of part-time employment was entirely attributable to a decline among short-hour part-time workers. For those working 15 to 29 hours, the numbers continued their steady upward trend. The number of people working less than 15 hours per week peaked in 1993 and generally declined after 1996. The number working 15 to 29 hours increased every year between 1976 and 2000, more than doubling over the period.

In 1976, about 13% of workers put in less than 30 hours per week at their main job. By 2000, this had climbed to 18%. The proportion of those working less than 15 hours was virtually unchanged over the period (5% and 6%). The proportion working 15 to 29 hours increased by about half, from less than 8% to more than 12%.

Business cycle effects

What lies behind the decline in the number of people working less than 15 hours per week? One factor appears to be the business cycle. While long-hour part-time work seems almost immune to it, short-hour part-time is somewhat susceptible. Following the recession of the early 1980s, short-hour part-time employment showed no growth until the end of the decade. And after the recession in the early 1990s, short-hour employment once again plateaued.

The precariousness of short-hour part-time jobs may reflect in part their temporary nature. For example, only 61% were permanent in 2000, compared with 77% of long-hour part-time jobs. Another indication of their vulnerability is the lower rate of unionization, 22% compared with 32% in 2000. (While the figures for job status and unionization are down slightly since 1997—when the data were first collected—it is too early to identify consistent trends.)

Changing legislation

Instead of resuming their growth toward the end of the 1990s, short-hour part-time jobs actually began to decline in 1997. Coincidentally, the rules for Employment Insurance (EI) premiums changed in January of that year. Prior to 1997, employers were not obliged to deduct EI premiums if an employee worked less than 15 hours in a week. And if no deduction was made, the employer did not have to pay its share, which is 1.4 times the employee deduction.

Only older men buck trend

Of the six age-sex groups examined here, only men 55 and older had a lower growth rate for long-hour part-time jobs than for short-hour ones (Table 1). Men 25 to 54 had by far the largest proportional increases in both types of part-time jobs—more than 300% each over the 25-year period.

Virtually all occupations and industries reflect trend

Between 1987 and 2000, note  1  every major occupational group except primary occupations had the highest growth rates for persons working 15 to 29 hours per week (Table 2). The number of workers averaging 15 to 29 hours more than doubled among those in natural and applied sciences, and in government service and religion. In half of the 10 occupation groups, the second highest growth was among those working 30 or more hours, while in the other half the honour went to those working less than 15 hours per week.

In every industry but one, the greatest gains between 1987 and 2000 were found among those working 15 to 29 hours per week (Table 3). The lone exception was agriculture, where employment actually declined. The smallest drop in this industry was among those working the longest hours and the biggest was among those working the shortest hours. Unlike the growth rates by occupation, the rates by industry were skewed to the longer end. Only five industries (of 18) had greater increases for short-hour part-time workers than for full-time.

Moonlighters affected

The decline in the number of people working less than 15 hours per week may also help to explain the levelling-off in the rate of multiple jobholding to around 5% in the latter part of the 1990s. It is much easier (and perhaps even necessary) to take on a second job when one is working less than 15 hours per week than when one is putting in closer to 30 hours. The rate of multiple jobholding jumped from 2.1% in 1976 to a peak of 5.2% in 1997 and then eased to 4.8% in 2000.


In 1976, for every 10 people working short-hour part-time at their main job, 15 worked long-hour part-time. By 2000 the latter had increased to 20. As a result, the average usual hours worked by part-timers climbed from 15.5 per week in 1976 to 16.9 in 2000.

The continuing growth in the number of people working 15 to 29 hours may reflect the emergence of what could be termed career part-time jobs. Two factors may have contributed to this trend. More women (who have traditionally worked shorter hours) have entered (and stayed) in the labour force, so that most families today comprise dual-career spouses who must juggle family and work responsibilities. In addition, more part-time jobs now offer benefits once reserved for full-time employees.

What cannot easily be determined is the driving force behind the trend. The extent to which more people choose part-time work adds to the supply of such workers (Marshall, 2001). On the other hand, the evolving requirements of employers may also increase the demand for part-time workers.


  1. The Labour Force Survey changed its occupation and industry coding systems in 2000, and revisions were taken back only to 1987.



Henry Pold is with the Labour and Household Surveys Analysis Division. He can be reached at (613) 951-4608 or

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