Issue of the week: The rise of a part-time economy

The economy has created new jobs for the 34th month in a row, but most of them are low-paid and part-time.

“I hate to sound happy” over the underwhelming July employment numbers, said John Crudele in the New York Post. But I told you so. While experts had predicted that 175,000 new jobs would be created last month, the Labor Department released figures last week showing just 162,000 new jobs. On the bright side, the unemployment rate fell to 7.4 percent, from 7.6 percent. That’s “great news, right?” Well, not when you consider that unemployment is only going down because more people have given up on looking for a job altogether. And that’s hardly the worst of it. Not only did the economy fail to add enough new jobs, but the government “also had to reduce by 26,000 the number of jobs it originally thought were created in May and June.”

Overall, “the economy still stinks,” said Josh Boak in If you need proof that this recovery is anemic, consider this: Hourly wages fell by two cents in July, and the average workweek was shorter, too. And “more than half of the jobs added were in retail, restaurants, and hospitality.” These numbers point toward a larger and disturbing trend: We’re creating an economy full of low-paid, part-time workers, while we face a “stagnation in the manufacturing jobs” that President Obama has so often bragged about creating.

At least we’re creating jobs, for the 34th month in a row, said Nin-Hai Tseng in Fortune. But it’s true that “the bulk of those jobs is neither highly paid nor full-time work.” Even if we haven’t yet entirely become “an economy of retail and restaurant workers,” the increasing share of such jobs “makes for a troubling trend.” Our economy depends on consumer spending, and if Americans are taking less home in their paychecks each week, they have fewer dollars to pump back into the economy at the checkout counter. Most part-time or temporary jobs also offer no health or retirement benefits, and little—if any—job security. And “when workers aren’t sure how much or where they might work tomorrow or next year, they’re less likely to spend.”

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The Right loves to think that Obamacare is to blame, said Timothy Noah in, but these numbers undermine that theory. The argument is that large employers are favoring part-time hires over full-time ones so they can avoid the Obamacare mandate to provide health insurance to employees who work 30 hours or more per week. But on July 2, that employer mandate was postponed to 2015. If the mandate were really the biggest factor for employers, the number of part-time workers would likely have fallen last month, not risen. “It’s beyond dispute that part-time and temporary employment are currently higher than they should be,” but the July numbers suggest that factors besides the specter of Obamacare are at work. Maybe the “employer mandate bogeyman” will prove to be a factor in the future. But for now, a more likely cause for the uptick in part-timers is the furloughing of federal employees because of the sequester. Either way, “the new numbers aren’t much to celebrate.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.