Editor’s note: This column originally ran in 2011
Labor day is here and with the end of summer. Now is the time for the final summer parties of the season, putting away the inflatable toys from the kids pool, packing up the barbecue and calming nervous children as they prepare to go back to school.
For most of us, Labor Day is nothing more than an excuse for a bbq, time to get in that last joyous relaxing days of warmth and sunshine. For others it is perhaps last long weekend of childhood enjoyment, for those lucky souls who are still teenagers to enjoy all the bounty Santa Monica has to offer.
Labor Day began as a holiday to honor the working class in this country. Like so much of modern culture. It has become perverted and simply an excuse for marketers to sell off their end of season clearance. For the children it is a day off from school and it should be a day of relaxation for a massively overworked society. Report after report shows that America has become a compulsive society consumed with work. We are constantly in contact and focused getting ahead.
It’s little wonder that we have to work so hard in this society, that we have to force ourselves to take days off. In a country where a person’s value is seemingly determined by the car they drive, the clothes they wear, how can we not expect people to be obsessive about the amount of money they’re making, the sales they are projecting and consequently to compete about how many hours they work.
In the 24-hour day, seven days a week, world of the internet, being connected is now obligatory. The expectation of instant communication at all times with everyone has infiltrated our society to such a degree, that if we should be able to take an afternoon off and quiet our cell phones and not return an e-mail, people instantly assume something is wrong. People attend concerts these days and bring their iPhones to check their text messages and emails, while in the middle of watching some performance that they have spent a couple of hundred dollars on. We are expected to respond to an e-mail asking if we have an afternoon available three weeks in the future, instantly.
On the one hand, I’m a big proponent of technology and the ability to transfer our workplace, effectively anywhere, for those of us who don’t have manufacturing jobs. On the other hand, for those of us who are incapable shutting off a phone for even an afternoon I think that the transition to a constant contact society is doing extreme harm.
Though the original meaning of Labor Day has lost some its shine in those parts of the country that are more rust belt than engine of society, we should still take a moment and remember what the intent was. To commemorate the economic and social achievements of workers. Principally begun in Australia as an outgrowth of a strike, it came to stand for the concept of an 8-hour work day, and 8 hours of recreation.
The idea of 8 hours of recreation is foreign to almost all of us today, which is ironic, because the advent of technology was supposed to free us. In some ways it has, as I have written about before, productivity for many people has become mobile. This is where the law of unintended consequences comes into play, and we see how the dream and the reality meet, but in a way that no one foresaw.
For knowledge workers, technology has actually become the great enslaver, and for manual workers, technology has dramatically reduced the need for their efforts. When the factories of yesteryear were redesigned, to accommodate the robots workers were displaced, and we have not found a way in which to utilize them. This has resulted in a surplus of labor, for a deficit of need.
There are many people who look at office workers and think that because they are not swinging a hammer, or riveting sheet metal, that they are not doing ‘real’ work. But the truth of the matter is, in terms of stress, and costs to one’s life, the office worker, who is now expected to be “on call” all the time, is likely suffering from greater stress than the steelworker, who worked an 8 hour day, and though they were physically exhausted at the end of the day, could go home, and put their job behind them.
The manual worker has a freedom that the knowledge does not enjoy. It is impossible to take home your work when you are a metal fabricator for Boeing. But I feel safe in saying that many a legal secretary has lost a good night’s sleep worrying about some form that was due to be filed with the court.
Labor used to mean hourly shift workers, and it still does, but as we have progressed in society to become more dependent upon our knowledge skills, we have also changed the face of labor. As work has become portable, people are more capable of working all the time, and the traditional concept of a laborer, needs to adapt.
We are all more likely to be considered labor, these days, and we should all take advantage of the original intent. To take a break, and recognize our accomplishments, whether they are wrought by hammer or mobile connected device, we all need to relax more.