More than 7.5 million part-time American workers are 50 years of age or older. For the slightly more than four in five who are working part time because they do not want a full-time job, their jobs are satisfying and fulfilling. Nearly half (46%) are working full time because they want to, another 24% because they have to, and the remaining 30% for both reasons. And among those categorized by the government as “voluntary part-timers,” 80% say they are satisfied with their job, including half who say they are “very satisfied.”
For older part-time workers who would like a full-time job but cannot find one — fewer than one in five of all part-time older workers — the realities are very different and more difficult. Most of these involuntary part-time workers have been searching for years without success for full-time work. Barely half are satisfied with their jobs; 8 in 10 describe their economic state as either poor or only fair.
The Joys and Disappointments of Older Part-time Workers offers a Labor Day tale of the two contrasting realities of older American part-time workers. The report’s findings are based on scientifically selected samples of voluntary and involuntary workers age 50 and over.
Though there are sharp differences between the voluntary and involuntary part-time, older worker, their worlds converge in some ways:
- Both work similar hours — a median of 20 hours per week for voluntary and 25 for involuntary part-time workers.
- Both have relatively stable jobs. Seven in ten voluntary and five in ten involuntary part-time workers have been at their job three years or more; 75% of the former and 62% of the latter believe they could stay permanently if they wanted.
- While most work side by side with full-time workers doing the same tasks, few part-timers receive benefits: just one in four gets educational training or a 401K retirement account. One in five receives health care insurance, paid vacations, or paid sick days; one in six has a pension.
- 60% of the voluntary and 73% of the involuntary are paid by the hour. About 10% are on salary and the rest are on commission, bonus, or self-employed.
Professor Carl Van Horn, co-director of the Work Trends project, commented, “Part-time work can be a great boon for older workers. Many derive great satisfaction and personal enrichment by working reduced hours toward the later years of their careers. It’s important to remember, however, that millions of older workers need a full-time job to make ends meet. For them, part-time work brings only frustration, disappointment, and financial struggles.”
Older Voluntary Part-time Workers
Those working part time voluntarily are generally well satisfied in their work life, and are in fairly good financial shape. Most are working part time simply because they wish to — two-thirds say they would be working part time even if they did not need to do so. Large numbers enjoy a number of benefits of part-time work. About 7 in 10 agree that working part time has allowed them to set their own schedules, given them more leisure time, provided them a greater ability to spend time with family and friends, and offered the flexibility to quit whenever they want. No more than half expressed a complaint on any of eight possible disadvantages of part-time work asked about. Three in five rate their current financial condition as either excellent or good, with one-third describing it as only fair and 8% describing it as poor. Just one in five report some current economic hardship as a result of working only part time.
Older Involuntary Part-time Workers
In stark contrast, older involuntary part-time workers are living an economic nightmare. Just under half say their financial condition is “only fair,” and another third say it is “poor.” Only one in five says they are either in excellent or good financial shape. Not many part-time workers, who are doing so because they can’t find full-time work, perceive any benefits in working part time, and large percentages report several disadvantages. At least 7 in 10 report that they earn less money than they and their family need to live; they also find it difficult to plan for the future and retirement. More than half find it hard to pay monthly bills or have run up credit card debt. And just under half indicate that their part-time job makes it more difficult to look for a full-time job.
The vast majority of involuntary part-time workers — 62% — have suffered some financial hardship over the past two years because of their part-time job status. About 35% of this group have sold some of their possessions, experienced stress in family relationships or close friendships, and increased credit card debt. About 25% say they took a job they didn’t like or one below their level of experience/education. A similar number borrowed money from family or friends.
These older involuntary part-time workers report making a number of sacrifices in life’s pleasures such as reducing spending on entertainment (64%) and eating out (57%), but a majority also has sacrificed in expenditures on clothing (59%) as well. Significant numbers have also reduced spending on essential goods and services such as food (36%), transportation (29%), and health care (23%). Involuntary part-time workers are, on average, about three times more likely to have reduced expenditures in these areas than voluntary part-timers.
Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers Professor of Public Policy and Political Science who co-directed the study commented, “The lives of most of those over 50 who want to work full time are seriously distressed. They live at the economic margins and see little prospect of finding anything better as the clock ticks into old age.”
The vast majority of part-time workers are working directly with full-time workers at their place of business. Forty-seven percent say almost all or three-quarters of workers at their company are full time, and another 22% say half are full time. Beyond not receiving benefits, a significant number of part-time workers receive lower pay than full-time workers doing the same job. Leaving aside the 27% who say full- and part-time workers don’t do the same jobs where they work, 44% of involuntary workers and 35% of voluntary part-time workers say they make less than equivalent full-time workers.
Still the vast majority of involuntary part-time workers say they are treated the same as full-time workers outside of salary and benefits, including being given the same information about how the company is run. A substantial minority of involuntary part-time workers say they are given less favorable work schedules (29%), less desirable job assignments (28%), are more likely to be forced to work holidays and weekends (30%), and are treated with less respect by management (27%). Just about 10% of voluntary part-time workers voice these complaints.
Potential Policy Solutions
By large margins, older part-time workers endorse two policy proposals put to them: by a margin of 71% to 9%, more favor than oppose raising the earnings limit that people receiving Social Security benefits can earn before being taxed, with the remainder expressing no opinion. And, by a margin of 67% to 9%, most favor requiring employers to allow part-time workers to participate on an equal basis in 401K plans. They favor raising the minimum wage of all workers by a margin of 62% to 22%.
“Whether working part time because they have to or because they want to, older workers strongly back policies that would give great opportunity for them to earn money at a job without cutting into their Social Security benefits, and would like employers to give part-time workers access to employer-supported retirement plans,” observed Professor Van Horn, a report co-author.
The data presented in this report come from a national online probability sample of 944 part-time workers in the United States fielded by GfK between March 25 and April 6, 2015. The sample included 489 50+ part-time workers and has a sampling error of approximately +/- 5%. The data were weighted to Bureau of Labor Statistics parameters. Full details are in the report’s methodological appendix.