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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

Massachusetts is for part-timers

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Among young and old, men and women, high school and college grads, part-time work is more common in Massachusetts than in the bulk of the United States.

Overall, roughly one of every three workers in the Bay State clocks less than 35 hours a week, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. While this may seem like a dubious distinction, it’s actually a sign of rare flexibility in the state job market.

For the most part, Massachusetts’ part-time workers aren’t stuck in undesirable gigs, unable to find steady, 40-hour slots. Most of them are content to work less than 35 hours a week, whether to make room for family obligations, deal with a pressing medical issue, or just open more space for the nonwork parts of life.

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And judging from Massachusetts’ strong economic performance in recent years, the preference for part-time work doesn’t seem to be a hindrance.

How do you know people are OK with part-time work?

When asked, most part-time workers tell the Census Bureau that they don’t feel stuck. They’re not frustrated and looking for better work; they have some other reason, often having to do with balancing work with school, family, and other responsibilities.

That’s true all across the country, but it’s even more true here in Massachusetts, where only 13 percent of part-timers say they’re desperate for full-time positions, according to EPI. A few states boast even lower numbers, but not many — and almost none with the kind of diverse, urban economy you find in Massachusetts.

Who does the most part-time work?

Women, by a long stretch. Nearly 4 of every 10 female workers in Massachusetts have part-time roles, and few of them say they are looking to spend more time in the workplace.

While this could certainly be considered a great boon — a sign of the remarkable work-life flexibility available in Massachusetts and unmatched in other states — the fact that women seem especially likely to take advantage of this flexibility suggests a deeper concern: namely, that women are still the ones expected to pursue part-time careers in order to manage the trade-offs between work, child care, elder care, and varied household challenges.

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Are some groups more trapped than others?

Less-educated workers and minorities are more likely to find themselves stuck in part-time work when they really want a full-time job. That’s true across the country, and Massachusetts is no exception.

In the Bay State, over 20 percent of African-American and Hispanic part-timers are hungry for more hours, roughly twice the figure for whites. And the numbers are similar for workers with just a high school diploma.

Is part-time work a new way of life in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts has had a thriving, part-time economy for at least the last 20 years. Back in 1994, 28.7 percent of the state workforce was part time. Today, it’s 29.6.

What’s more, part-time work seems to play an important role across New England. All six New England states have large, part-time sectors. Maine is number 2, behind Massachusetts. Rhode Island is number 4. Connecticut is number 5.

Is part-time work good or bad?

Getting stuck in a part-time job when you want full-time work is a problem. But that’s not really what’s happening in Massachusetts, where only 13 percent of part-timers report feeling trapped by economic circumstance.

And while you might think that a part-time economy would be a sign of weakness — proof that good jobs were scarce — the numbers don’t bear this out. Since the great recession, many of the fastest-growing states have been those with the highest number of part-time workers, including Massachusetts, Oregon, Minnesota, and Vermont.

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So while flexibility isn’t something we usually associate with Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage, it seems to have become a staple of the region’s economy. And that may not be such a bad thing.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.