The “Other” Side of the Story

8 Jan

I was going to write a different blog post when, in the course of perusing the latest Labour Force Survey data on Statistics Canada’s website (as you do, on a Sunday morning), I came across a table that stopped me in my tracks.

This is a table the LFS releases with each cycle, showing the reasons part-time workers (comprising one-fifth of all workers in our labour force) give for working part-time.

Look closely.

You’ll notice that each of the “voluntary” reasons for part-time work is spelled out in the table. The most common reason for working part-time – largely due to the fact that the under-24 age group pulls the figure up – is going to school (29%). Close by, at 26%, is personal preference – which is why the majority (55%) of the plus-44 crowd of part-timers (that’s right, 45 or 85, you’re in the same category now) work part-time hours. But in between those two high-ranking answers is the seemingly benign “Other” category, with 27%.

What are these “Other” reasons? Oh, just business conditions and unable to find full-time work.

Fully 27% of part-time workers of all ages would work full-time if they could. More strikingly, over one-third of prime-age part-timers – the 25-44 group – work part-time involuntarily, because they can’t find full-time work or because of “business conditions”, which sounds to me like another way of saying full-time work is impossible to find in their occupational field.

And yet the story, as Stats Can tells it in the news release that usually accompanies the LFS, is about a slight rise in employment and unemployment. That’s the first line of the release agency bureaucrats sent to major media outlets, and that’s what we heard on the radio, read in the newspaper and saw on TV news: a slight bump in employment, accompanied by a higher unemployment rate due to an increase in labour force participation; a bit of good news, a bit of bad news, adding up to mainly worrisome news that Canada’s economic recovery could be “running out of steam.”

What about the thousands of people who are, by virtue of not being able to find a job that will employ them for more than 30 hours a week, under-employed? Why isn’t that part of the story?

The official release from Stats Can does give a nod to the part-time numbers, but only to note that “an increase of 43,000 in part-time work was partially offset by a decline of 26,000 in full-time employment.”

Involuntary part-time work has been rather high for years now. Older data compiled by the Canadian Council on Social Development shows that it increased markedly from 1976 (11%) to 1994 (35%), following the business cycle to some extent, but also increasing independent of economic recessions, recoveries and booms. However, recent OECD data – which appear to be the best source of comparison I have at my disposal right now – suggest that the percentage of part-timers who would prefer to work full-time has increased dramatically over the last five years, from 21% in 2007 to 27% in 2011.

If we mined deeper, I bet we’d find that most involuntary part-timers are women (as has historically been the case), that there are interesting and meaningful differences between smaller age groups, separating the 20-24 crowd from the 15-19 crowd, and the 25-34 crowd from the 35-43 crowd.

These are significant figures, and they’re too important to be relegated to the nondescript “Other” category.




2 Responses to “The “Other” Side of the Story”

  1. Beth January 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm #

    I am truly impressed by your Sunday morning reading! Mine was Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact: Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. One of her central arguments is how state uses numerical signifiers (i.e. stats) to govern — which I think is related. For example, if the state does not want us to know that the economy is in fact slowing (which might result in a decline of ‘consumer confidence’), they would use numbers–supposedly set apart from theoretical and/or subjective influences to obscure the reasons for part time employment.

    • elementalpresent January 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

      Hi Beth! Brian’s a big fan of that book too. I haven’t read it – only heard it summarized – but the weird thing about Stats Can is that it is an agency of bureaucrats (as it should be), who as far as I know are quite independent of the political machinery. Of course, they’re going to follow whatever is the dominant discursive thrust of the day, but you’d think they’d be a bit more critical. From time to time (well, twice) they put out a longer analytical piece about involuntary part-time work, but they haven’t since 2000, and even that was based on 1993 or 1994 data. And you can;t access previous summary tables from the website to compare – you need to get access to the whole dataset and most people don’t have the means, technology or the skills to do that.

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