I was recently commiserating with a friend of mine about the challenges of working and parenting. Even when you have fantastic childcare available it can still be hard to balance a full-time gig and feel like you’re succeeding as a parent.
Most of the time, I like working. I worked very hard to earn a Master’s degree and I feel fortunate to have a job that I find intellectually stimulating. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some days it’s a total grind to get the kid out the door by 8 am (with both shoes, lunch packed, hair-brushed), work all day, pick up kid, come home, make dinner, do bath time, and put her to bed. Repeat five days a week.
With two full-time working parents, that’s our life.
My friend and I agreed… the dream scenario would be to work part-time.
However, there are a couple of problems with that dream.
First, where are all the professional part-time jobs?!
Many of the part-time jobs that are available appear to be separated into a few categories.
- First is low-paid, unskilled work. This would include things like restaurant and retail type jobs.
- Second is health care where part-time positions and PRN seem to be more common than other industries.
- Third, is independent contractors/freelancers. This category is huge and includes everything from your Uber drivers to freelance writers. These people often have the greatest freedom and flexibility of all but lack many of the perks provided by traditional employers.
However, if you are highly skilled outside of these areas and are interested in being a W-2 employee, there is a dearth of opportunities for you when it comes to part-time employment. For many highly skilled professionals, it’s full-time or no-time.
Why is a 40-hour workweek the standard for a full-time job?
If you research the history of the 40-hour workweek, the story begins with the industrial revolution. When factories became prominent employers, many treated their employees with very poor labor standards and often required them to work for 10-16 hours a day. Unions helped to advocate for an 8-hour day. However, even into the early 1900s many people still worked 6 days a week.
We can thank Henry Ford for being the trailblazer of the 5-day workweek. His employees were working 48 hours over 6 days, but he found that his employees were more productive when he only had them work 40 hours over 5 days. His success inspired other manufacturers to adopt his change.
In the United States, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 which required all employers to pay overtime to employees who worked more than 44 hours per week. Two years later, they amended the act and decreased the workweek down to 40 hours, and thus, in 1940 Franklin D. Roosevelt enshrined the 40-hour workweek into law.
However, 80 years later, many Americans still work MORE than 40 hours/week. In fact, a 2014 Gallup poll showed that the average full-time employee actually works 47 hours.
Why are there so few part-time professional jobs?
This is a question that is harder to answer, but there are likely several contributing factors. Let’s break each of those factors down:
In the United States, health insurance is deeply tied to employment and has been since the New Deal. Just like we can thank our 32nd president for the 40-hour workweek, we can also thank him for tying health insurance to employment.
In 1942, Congress put salary caps on what employers could pay their employees and instead allowed them to offer other benefits as a recruitment tool. This coincided with advances in healthcare that made health insurance desirable. So, employers started offering health insurance as additional compensation in order to recruit the best employees.
Ironically, the progressives of 1942 created the problems for today’s progressives in trying to reform healthcare.
In 1954, employer-sponsored health insurance became further entrenched in our system as a tax dodge when changes to IRS rules exempted the employer contribution to health insurance from taxable income.
Most employers now believe that an employee should work full-time in order to be eligible for health insurance. Purchasing insurance independently is often extremely expensive (even with the marketplace) and often provides worse coverage.
This may be changing slightly, but for many years, employees were dependent on receiving pensions to support retirement. For many, the amount you received was dependent upon how much you worked. Hence, there was an incentive to work more.
With the switch to defined-contribution plans, this may be loosening up. However, many plans still have requirements on the number of hours you must work in a year in order to be eligible for the retirement plan.
There is a sad reality that many people believe they need to work as much as possible in order to make ends meet. Wage stagnation is real, debt loads have never been higher, child care is prohibitively expensive, and overall budgets feel increasingly squeezed.
For those with kids, child care is expensive and many times the price doesn’t change proportionally with the amount of time a child is in care. For many people, child care is only affordable if they are earning a full-time income. If they were to decrease their income due to part-time work, a larger proportion of their take-home pay would likely be eaten up by child care.
It’s the Default for Employers
When posting new positions, many employers don’t even consider the possibility of hiring a part-time employee or job-sharing. This is largely due to the benefits discussed previously.
This may be the most insidious and difficult factor to influence. America has an attitude that values hard work. We promote “the American dream” that says if you work hard you can achieve anything. Our politicians espouse, “Jobs, jobs, jobs” yet fail to enact policies that support working families. We under-value stay-at-home parents and bestow prestige upon careers where extreme work hours are a rite of passage (think medical residency).
Work-life balance is a hip buzzword, but culturally it hasn’t been adopted as the norm here. There are crescendoing whispers about promoting workplace flexibility, but collective cultural attitudes toward this topic are shifting at a glacial pace.
It’s time to make a change
Our world has changed dramatically from the one that spawned the 40-hour workweek. In the era of factory work, people clocked in when they got there, clocked out when they left and couldn’t do their work elsewhere. However, our society has changed; knowledge workers are now more common than manufacturing workers. The tools of today’s professionals are digital and mobile and the vast majority of them can (and do!) work from many locations other than just the office.
Neighborhoods and family support systems have shifted so that the demands on families and parents are different now than they were 80 years ago. Our lives have changed, maybe our work should change too.
There is very clear research that working more than 40 hours per week has negative impacts on both employers and employees. However, my goal here is not to advocate against the 40-hour workweek or say that it should be less for everyone. I recognize that for many people a 40-hour workweek is a great option for their income, benefits, and productivity.
My argument is that there simply should be more options for less than 40-hour work. Part-time should be a piece of the overall conversation about workplace flexibility.
Why should more professional part-time opportunities be available?
- Greater workplace flexibility leads to improved employee retention.
- Increases the pool of available talent for potential employers
- Specialization: if an employer is looking for a candidate with a very specific skill set it may be easier to hire a couple highly specialized part-time people than try to find one candidate who can do it all.
- Keep employer costs down. Don’t make your employees stay for unproductive hours, just to meet a time quota.
- Provides employees with skills the opportunity to perform meaningful work even when they may not want to work full-time or take unskilled roles.
Employee Jobs Not just Freelancers
There has been a huge uptick in the number of freelancers and independent contractors. Some articles will claim there has been a huge increase in the number of part-time workers and this is largely the cause. But there is a big difference between an employee and a freelancer.
Freelancers and independent contractors must shoulder all of the costs that they incur while working, they are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and aren’t covered under their employer’s insurance. Some people just do not want to be freelancers and some professional skills lend themselves better to freelance work than others. For this reason, I am advocating for more professional part-time jobs and not just more freelancing and independent contracting.
How do we make that happen?
There are both immediate and long-term solutions. The first is that more employees can start asking to work part-time. When more employees speak up and admit that they are willing to sacrifice some income in order to receive work-life balance, maybe we can influence the cultural shift toward greater acceptance of part-time work.
The second is for employers to change their default. How revolutionary would it be for them to look at an open position and honestly question what this employee needs to accomplish and how long should it realistically take for them to do that?
What if we shifted the focus away from hours to outputs?
What if we also shifted the way hiring negotiations were done? Imaging a scenario where a highly qualified professional applied for a position, interviewed, discussed the work to be done with the boss and then said I think I can accomplish X, Y, Z in 25 or 30 hours and then they negotiated the pay accordingly. I get that’s a lot to ask for some employers, but I’m dreaming big here.
Another important factor would be to separate health insurance from employment.
Over the last hundred years, we’ve redefined the landscape of employment. Now, let’s redefine what it means to have work-life balance. Giving employees the opportunities to perform meaningful work while also meeting the demands of personal life is a win for all involved.
If you’re a highly skilled professional, have you been interested in working part-time? If so, how was the part-time job landscape for you?