From education to employment

Britain’s ‘part-time work divide’ offers higher life satisfaction for many lower earners, but career constraints or lower living standards for other

People choose to work part-time for a number of reasons, many of them positive, but lower living standards, limited progression, and underemployment are key areas for concern, with the concentration of low hours work among lower earners amounting to a ‘part-time work divide’ between rich and poor households, according to new research published today (Wednesday) by the Resolution Foundation.

The report Constrained choices, supported by the Health Foundation, combines data analysis with findings from a series of targeted focus groups to understand why low earners are choosing to work part-time, and the impact it has on their wellbeing and living standards.

The report notes that long-term falls in working hours can be seen as an integral part of economic progress as countries become richer.

Between 1968 and 2018, average working hours in the UK fell by 14 per cent (from 37 to 32 hours per week).

However, recent decades have seen major changes in work patterns of different groups – particularly for lower-paid men who used to work longer hours than higher-paid men but now do the opposite. This has contributed to a ‘part-time work divide’, with low-paid men (those in the bottom hourly pay quintile) now working five hours a week fewer than high-paid men (those in the top hourly pay quintile), and low-paid women working ten hours a week fewer than high-paid women.

The report notes that the ‘part-time work divide’ raises inequality, with overall inequality in individual earnings almost twice as high as it is in hourly wages (6.3 and 3.4 respectively using the 90:10 ratio to measure inequality).

This divide should, on the face of it, be of concern to policy makers given its real impact on living standards. But Constrained choices finds that a more nuanced view is appropriate with many lower-earners seeing working part-time as a positive decision.

Focus group attendees spoke about how part-time work boosted their sense of well-being and life satisfaction, allowing them to combine work with things like raising a family. 

Part-time workers report similar levels of life satisfaction to full-time workers, and lower levels of work-related stress. In 2015, less than a quarter of part-time employees, compared to over two-fifths of full-time employees, regularly felt stressed at work. 

However, the report warns that policy makers should not be complacent.

First, low hours is strongly correlated with low pay. In 2021, out of all workers defined as having low weekly pay, almost nine-in-ten (88 per cent) were in part-time work, compared to just two-in-five had low hourly pay.

Second, part-time work can also harm future pay prospects. Just one-in-four part-time workers say their job has prospects for advancement, compared to 38 per cent of workers in full-time jobs.

Third, while underemployment has fallen overall over the past decade, it remains high for low-paid men and young people aged 18-24. One-in-five low-earning men working part-time were underemployed in 2021, compared to 7 per cent of high-earning part-time men, while almost half (47 per cent) of young men and a third (33 per cent) of young women aged 18-24 who were working part-time reported doing so because they could not find a full-time job.

Low-paid workers themselves also reported significant constraints driving their choice of working shorter hours.

The idea of doing more hours was unattractive when low-paid work can feel demoralising, stressful and unfulfilling. Many felt they couldn’t do their current job full-time without having to work unsociable hours or missing out on family commitments. This is backed by evidence: in 2022, 38 per cent of workers in the bottom hourly pay quintile regularly work on weekends, compared to just 6 per cent of those in the top quintile.

Finally, childcare costs also remained a key barrier, with many stating that taking on additional work would simply not be worth it, due to the additional money that would be spent on childcare.

Louise Murphy, Economist at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Working shorter hours is meant to be a key part of progress as Britain becomes richer and more productive. But working life has not panned out that way, and instead we have seen a ‘part-time work divide’, where low-paid workers work fewer hours than high earners. This reduces individuals’ living standards and raises Britain’s inequality.

“Of course, for many lower earners, part-time work is a positive choice, reflecting their wider life priorities. For others, however, the decision to work part-time is driven by a lack of flexibility and opportunity, with real implications for their wages today and progression tomorrow.”

“Policy makers should therefore recognise these nuanced drivers of part-time work, and focus on improving the quality of people’s work. Part-time work should not be the only route for low earners to enjoy the flexibility that higher-paid workers take for granted, such as being able to do the school run or keep weekends free.”

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