Lies, damn lies, and labor statistics

Last Friday, Sejal Parikh from Working Washington dropped a statistic about a recent rise in involuntary part-time workers, based on a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report that had just come out that morning. But, as Inigo Montoya said, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Parikh, who has done an excellent job representing employee stakeholders in the ongoing conversation about secure scheduling in the CRUEDA committee, noted that the BLS report had shown a recent increase of 500,000 people over the last six months who were “involuntary part-time workers” or what BLS refers to as “part time for economic reasons.” Parikh referred to this as a “giant, giant jump.”  In fairness, she did say that she hadn’t had time to fully digest the report. But this it still a valid case-in-point for throwing out statistics in presentations without fully understanding or contextualizing them.

Here’s the link to the BLS’s data on involuntary part-time workers. And here’s their graph for the data, starting in 2015:

part time workers 2015-16
Involuntary part-time workers in the US (millions). Data provided by US Bureau of Labor Statistics

Parikh did not, in fact, lie when she said that in the last six months there had been an increase of roughly 500,000 involuntary part-time workers. In fact, between April and May of this year alone the jump was almost that much. Though that also points out one way that people frequently lie with statistics by carefully choosing the start and end dates: if measured from March to May, the change is only 300,000.  But that brings us to the more relevant question: is it really a big, big jump that we should be concerned about? To answer that, we need to look over a longer period.

part time workers 2006-2016

We can see that over the last ten years there was a dramatic rise when the recession hit, and then a long-term downward trend with a very wobbly line. There are two take-aways: the current upward blip looks like a relatively small wobble, and it is not at all inconsistent with the data from the past six years. What’s happened in the past six months is not a “big, big jump” in the context of past data, and no one should be panicking. As an aside, the most recent month’s employment data often gets revised in the following months, so this might become an even smaller wobble.

A far more interesting question is whether the number of involuntary part-time workers has settled into a plateau over the past year and we should expect it to stay there — representing a “new normal” for our economy. There isn’t enough data from 2016 to be able to draw that kind of conclusion yet, since historically there have been temporary plateaus of this length that were only minor interruptions in a longer trend. But even so we can still ask whether a plateau at the 6 million level would represent a “new” normal or whether it’s consistent with past trends. That requires us to look even further back, say to 1960:

part time workers 1960-2016

You can clearly see bumps for the effect of Reagan’s pro-business policies in the early 1980’s, and the recessions of the early 1990’s and 2000’s; you can also see the valleys for the 1960’s boom times and the Internet bubble of the late 1990’s. That makes it difficult to make out a larger trend-line, if one exists. If 6 million involuntary part-time workers does become the new normal, it would certainly be an absolute high though not far off from the end of the Reagan years. But there’s one more piece of context that helps us decipher this: the population of the United States, which has been steadily growing over this period of time.


Since 1960, the population of the United States has almost doubled (current 2016 estimates are north of 320 million). One might argue that if there is a theoretical minimum for involuntary part-time workers (just as there is for overall unemployment) then that number would probably track with the overall population.  And if you look at U.S. unemployment levels, you see that trend line — a steady increase — much clearer:

unemployment 1960-2016

But here’s the involuntary part-time chart again:

part time workers 1960-2016It’s messier, but overall resembles the unemployment graph at least in terms of the cycles (as one might expect) and hints at a trend line of steady growth. That adds a little more credence to the hypothesis that involuntary part-time employment, in absolute numbers, will increase with the overall population even if the short-term correlation is weaker.

What have we learned? Involuntary part-time employment is not a new phenomenon in the US economy. It’s unclear whether it’s ever established a stable level as it seems very tied both to economic cycles and to business practices. It seems to be trending up, though it’s difficult to judge where the “floor” might be as the US economy continues to recover from the recession. But there’s nothing in the recent numbers that should cause anyone to panic or declare an economic or labor crisis. Involuntary part-time employment has come way down from its peak in the recession, which is great news, and there is no justification for the belief that it’s trending back up (at least yet).

Oh, and we should all try not to shout out new labor statistics in meetings before we get a chance to vet them.