Last reviewed 14 June 2016

Gudrun Limbrick looks at the rise in men working part time.

The standard full-time working week of Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, is known and understood throughout the Western world and by far the most common form of work. While not everyone works it, it is accepted as the “norm” and is the working standard against which all other working formats are judged. For those working in office-based jobs and education, the vast majority will be working the standard working week.

The length and nature of the full-time week, however, is an entirely constructed concept, not based on any empirical evidence about the most effective length of the working week, or the working day. In fact, the present-day idea of the weekend, although now very fixed in the national psyche, only arose because, having had Sundays as the Christian Sabbath day of rest, the day before, as the Jewish Sabbath, was simply added on during the 20th century. There was no national decision made, just a gradual merging of the idea of two days of religion-based rest.

There are, however, many types of work which require employees to work on days and times which are out of line with the standard working week. Shift work came to the fore largely through the need of factories to make use of the whole week; weekend and evening work was needed in the hospitality and medical services. Non-standard working hours are now becoming more and more common in all fields of work.

One factor in non-standard hours has always been a notable feature — there are far more women in part-time jobs than men and part-time jobs are far more likely to be in the lower paid forms of employment. But is this all about to change?

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) has forecast that there will be a 20% increase in the number of male part-time workers by 2024, with a much smaller rise of just 7% in female part-time workers. This is the first time there has been a rise in part-time work for men greater than that for women. The trend is also evident when looking at full-time work — for women an increase of 7% is forecast while for men it is only 3%. What will this trend mean for our standard working week?

Currently, there are around 23.1 million people in the UK in full-time jobs (regardless of whether they are working a standard working week or not) and around 8.5 million people in part-time jobs. 8.4 million women are in full-time jobs with around 6.1 million in part-time jobs. The figures for men are very different — 14.4 million in full-time jobs and just 2.1 million in part-time jobs.

It is interesting to note that the percentage of women in employment is at the highest it has been since records began in 1971 — 69.2%. In part, this rise is due to the raised retirement age although changes in lifestyle may also be playing a part. For men the percentage in work is 79%. With more women economically active, and the general tendency for women to be in part-time work, this could mean a huge growth in part-time workers. This is why the forecast for men taking on part-time work is significant.

Women have traditionally taken on part-time work because it fits better with their role as caring for their children or other dependants. However, working part time is not simply a matter of taking on fewer hours. The problem of part-time work is that it has generally only found to be an option in lower paid work and women who can only work part time can be overlooked for promotion to traditionally full-time employment.

What is interesting about the forecast in the rise of men in part-time work is that the jobs are not tending to be those that have traditionally been part time. It is forecast that there will be a 25% increase in the number of men in professional or management roles becoming part time. This suggests that we are not going to have a straightforward exchange of female part-timers for male part-timers — something more complex is happening.

The drivers for increased part-time work appear to be changing. While the drive for traditional part-time work appears to have been largely around fitting the need to work around the need to look after dependants, the current drivers may be around choosing a better work-life balance.

Employers are finding that attracting the best employees for their higher paid roles is not solely about money any more but also about offering a package of incentives including more flexibility in hours worked so that employees have time for their out-of-work activities. Social, sporting and leisure activities now may have a much greater role in the lives of employees than they did a generation ago and those who can afford it are demanding a better balance between their work lives and their social lives.

There is also another factor at work in part-time work — people do not always choose to take on part-time work, sometimes it is all that they can find. Before the recession, 9.5% of those in part-time work said that they were only in part-time work because they could not find a full-time job. That amounts to 705,000. In the latest 2016 data, this number is 1.2 million — 14.3% of those in part-time work saying that they could have preferred to be in full-time work. While this percentage is higher than it was before the recession, it is a decrease from a peak of 18.4% in 2014.

This tells a very different picture to that forecast in the recent UKCES report. The focus in the forecast was on those in higher paid jobs actively demanding part time to make room for leisure in their lives.

Perhaps what we will see is an expansion of that form of part-time work in those very highly paid jobs as people who can afford it demand it, while, at the other end of the employment spectrum, we will continue to see high levels of people in lower-paid part-time employment (still, for the time being, predominated by women). A significant proportion of this group would, it would seem, prefer to be in full-time employment and few of whom are actively choosing part-time employment because it gives them more leisure time.

By forces of both “pull” (people demanding a better work-life balance) or “push”, full-time jobs are limited in supply and employers are demanding more flexibility from their workforce and we are seeing the demise of the standard full-time working week. This goes alongside the increased use of non-standard employment contracts (such as zero-hours contracts) which create economies for employers; and an increase in both self-employment and home-based working. I wonder if we will look back on the 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday as a construct of the 20th century which faded out in the 20th century with as little pomp and fanfare as it arrived.