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March 20, 2017
Working for Yourself, Some of the Time
Self-employment as a person's primary labor market activity has become much less commonplace in the United States (for example, see the analysis here and here ). This is a potentially important development, as less self-employment may indicate a decline in overall labor market mobility, business dynamism, and entrepreneurial activity (for example, see the evidence and arguments outlined here ).
Recessions can be particularly bad for self-employment, with reduced opportunities for potential business entrants as well as greater difficulty in keeping an existing business going (see here for some evidence on this). However, the rate of self-employment has been drifting lower over a long period, suggesting other factors are also playing a role in the decision to enter and exit self-employment.
One especially troubling development is the decline in the rate of self-employment for those in high-skill service providing jobs (management, professional, and technical services)—the people you might expect to be particularly entrepreneurial. For example, for workers aged 25 to 54 years old, the self-employment rate has declined from 13 percent in 1996 to 9 percent in 2016, and for those 55 years of age or older, the rate has dropped from 27 percent to 19 percent (using data from the Current Population Survey).
Not only are people in high-skill service jobs less likely to be self-employed than in the past, those who are self-employed are also less likely to be working full-time. The fraction usually working full-time has decreased from about 79 percent in 1996 to 74 percent in 2016. (The full-time rate for comparable private sector wage and salary earners has remained relatively stable at around 88 percent.) One possible explanation for the decline in hours worked is the last recession's lingering effects, which made it harder to generate enough work to maintain full-time hours. Another possibility is that more of the self-employed are choosing to work part-time.
It turns out that both explanations have played a role. The following chart shows the percent of part-time self-employment in high-skill service jobs. The blue lines are for unincorporated businesses and the green lines are for incorporated businesses. In order to distinguish cyclical and noncyclical effects, the chart shows the part-time rate for those who want to work full-time but aren't because of slack business conditions or their inability to find more work (part-time for economic reasons, or PTER), and those who work part-time for other reasons (part-time for noneconomic reasons, or PTNER).
In the chart, I classify someone as self-employed when that person's main job is working for profit or fees in his or her own business (and hence it does not capture people whose primary employment is a wage and salary job but are also working for themselves on the side). The self-employed could be sole proprietors or own their business in partnership with others, and the business may assume any of several legal forms, including incorporation. The chart pertains to the private sector, excluding agriculture, and part-time is usually working less than 35 hours a week.
On the cyclical side, the PTER rates (the dotted lines) rose during the last recession and have been slowly moving back toward prerecession levels as the economy has strengthened. In contrast, the PTNER rates (the solid lines) have moved higher since the end of the recession, continuing a longer-term trend. Choosing to work part-time has been playing an increasingly important role in reducing full-time self-employment in high-skill jobs. Note that there is not an obvious long-term trend toward greater PTNER for those self-employed in middle- or low-skill jobs (not shown).
Shifting demographics is one important factor contributing to the decline in average hours worked. In particular, the PTNER rate for older self-employed is much higher than for younger self-employed, and older workers are a growing share of part-time self-employed, a fact that reflects the aging of the workforce overall. (For more on the self-employment of older individuals, see here .) The net result is a rise in the fraction of self-employed choosing to work part-time. The higher rate of PTNER for the older self-employed appears to be mostly because of issues specific to retirement, such as working fewer hours to avoid exceeding social security limits on earnings.
The last recession and a relatively tepid economic recovery reduced the hours that some self-employed people have been able to work because of economic conditions. However, there has also been a longer-term reduction in how many hours other self-employed people (especially those in occupations requiring greater education and generating greater hourly earnings) choose to work. This increased propensity to work only part-time in their business is another factor weighing on overall entrepreneurial activity.
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