Part-time work – Europe is divided

More and more Europeans are working part-time. This is evidenced in the EU Employment and Social Situation Quarterly Review published by the Commission in Spring 2016. In 2015, the EU average for women working part-time was 32.1%; however, it was just 8.9% for men, although the gap is slowing getting smaller.


Part-time employment can be a positive development if it results in a better work-life balance or it provides employment opportunities to people who were previously excluded from the job market, such as mothers or older workers. However, it can be a disadvantage if part-time work is involuntary because it is the only option or is a result of the difficulty of reconciling family life with working life. Part-time work also has other disadvantages such as a lower income, poorer career opportunities and, over the long term, reduced pension benefits.  


When reading the review, it is striking how much part-time work is gender-specific; significantly more women are in part-time employment. There is also a clear east-west divide. In Eastern Europe, part-time work is also rare for women, whereas in Western Europe it is more widely embraced. The best example of this is the Netherlands where three quarters of women, but also one fifth of men, work part-time (three times greater than the EU average). The Netherlands also has one of the lowest proportions of involuntary part-time workers.  

Overall, the proportion of part-time workers in Europe has increased since 2007, while full-time employment has declined. This increase is particularly strong among men, whereas the figures for women have remained generally the same. However, unlike the Netherlands where part-time work is an expression of greater personal freedom, the trend in other countries reflects the fact that there were simply no other alternatives to part-time work, ultimately a full-time job just wasn’t available. In 2007, 23.1% of part-time workers in Europe reported that this was an involuntary situation; in 2015 the figure was 29.9%. For men, the proportion is higher than for women: 42.4% compared to 26.2%. This was particularly evident in countries hardest hit by the financial crisis such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland.  


The increase in part-time work can be a “consequence of the economic crisis”, especially in the worst-hit countries, but it is still to be seen whether is it also the “future of work”. A pessimistic scenario would be that involuntary and precarious part-time work becomes the only option for more and more people. The optimistic scenario would see growth in part-time work as a reflection of more flexibility and freedom of choice when it comes to work-life balance, and for both women and men.