The Danger of Part-Time Work

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This post is part of Women’s Money Week. Today’s theme is Part-Time Work. Visit the site to read different insights from women bloggers on the topic.

‘Part-time work’ is a dangerous phrase. While the underlying concept — work that can be done around other obligations, like another job or taking care of a family — is an appealing one, the reality is less so. The term is routinely used to describe less valued work, something that might be assigned to someone who doesn’t have her act together enough to be handed a full-time job or so minimal that it doesn’t take a ‘real’ employee’s attention.

Consider the work that’s often available under the ‘part-time’ label:

  • Jobs with big corporations that aren’t looking for employees with skills valuable enough to earn them health insurance and other benefits that are legally required for full-timers.
  • Scammy ‘opportunities’ to earn quick cash stuffing envelopes or promoting affiliate products online.
  • Creative work in fields where employers know that newer workers are desperate to get any sort of paying opportunity.
  • Service jobs that the economy doesn’t value enough to apply normal minimum wage laws to, like waiting tables).

Is it surprising to find out that women tend to be in the majority in the fields that rely on part-time workers? We are more likely to have caregiver roles that make taking full-time jobs much harder, making us more reliant on whatever part-time work we can land. But such jobs can be difficult to move out of, even when other obligations have changed and would allow us to pursue other opportunities. Part of the trap comes straight from the words that a part-timer might use to describe her work, suggesting to a prospective employer that other candidates might be a better choice.

Language Dictates Our Expectations

The words we use to describe the work we want put certain limitations on what we have access to. I have a whole soapbox rant about ‘WAHM’s (work-at-home-moms): in short, by telling people who you want to work with that your children will always be a higher priority, you’re shutting yourself out of opportunities. Sure, no one thinks twice if you need to take time away to take care of an emergency, but listing yourself as a WAHM can lead potential employers or managers to assume that you’ll stop everything to spend hours on end with your family and that you don’t know how to balance your work against other obligations. I’ve known some incredible professionals who took their work seriously, yet used the WAH terminology. They’ve limited their careers in the process.

Looking for part-time work or describing your current work as part-time can be similarly damaging. Consider the two statements below:

“I have a part-time job, but I’m looking for another one.”

“I’m working on one project already and I’m ready to take on another one.”

The two sentences can easily describe the exact same situation, but I’d much prefer to work with the person who said the second one. She’s clearly looking for ways to grow, while the first statement sounds like it’s coming from someone who just can’t get his act together enough to find a full-time job.

I’m not on a crusade to stamp out the term ‘part-time work,’ but it’s nota phrase that I would encourage a friend looking to grow her career to list anywhere on her resume.

Think Bigger than Part-Time

We have a wealth of vocabulary to describe different work scenarios, and it keeps expanding. You can a freelancer, a contractor, self-employed, own a small business, and do exactly the same work at the end of the day. Even if you’re working for just one company for less than forty hours a week, you can find other ways to describe what you’re doing (especially if you work independently from the usual structure), like working ‘flexible hours.’

That small change in word choice can make you sound much more employable and appealing. After all, in the corporate world, flexible hours are seen as a perk — a benefit or a reward for employees the company wants to hang on to.

If you have ambitions beyond a part-time job that happens to match up with the schedule you have to follow right now, try imagining what your perfect opportunity looks like. The word ‘flexible’ may be in that job description, but I don’t expect that you’re really looking for opportunities purely based on the number of hours a week you have available to work. In fact, you may have a goal of eventually working even fewer hours — and the odds aren’t great for getting there purely by getting paid more per hour for work that an employer or a client may already put little value.

Start describing what you do now and where you’re hopefully headed in terms of what you want out of your career. By thinking bigger now, you can get yourself in the mindset that you’re reaching out for something attainable. But if you keep thinking of your work as part-time, it’s harder to commit to: you can psych yourself out of pursuing your goals. Just looking at part-time job listings is an exercise in depression. Actually talking about yourself as a part-timer, day in and day out, isn’t any better.

Language isn’t enough on its own to change our circumstances. But it’s a starting point, one that can motivate each of us to think about the work we do today and the work we want to take on tomorrow in a different light.

Image by Flickr user Tax Credits


  1. Pingback: Posts Round Up: Part Time Work

  2. Alicia Rades   •  

    “Language dictates our expectations.” You are completely right. I don’t use the term “part-time,” but I should probably pay more attention to the words I DO use and their connotation.

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