The Story of Labor (the work kind, not the pregnancy kind)

Two days ago, America celebrated Labor Day, a day requisite with barbecues and end of summer pool parties. For many Americans, it was the last day before the first day of school. For some, it marked a huge turning point in the flow of work in the office (It’s Labor Day everyone – time to get serious. No more summer Fridays). For some, it marked the last day they could wear white (Is it just me, or is anyone else a disaster when they wear white, anyway?). And for others, it was simply a day off, nothing more.

Of course, it’s important to remember that not everyone has Labor Day off or chooses to take Labor Day off. Plenty of businesses took advantage of the majority of Americans having time off and supposed money to spend, talking up their Labor Day hours and Labor Day sales. I know plenty of teachers who spent their Labor Day laboring to get their classrooms in tip-top shape before their students arrived on Tuesday.

Labor Day is a fascinating one. It started off as a parade in support of union workers in 1882 (Ironically, the union workers had to take an unpaid day to join in the festivities). As the Labor Movement took action, the typical American work experience began to take shape: 40 hours per week, minimum wage, workman’s comp, child labor laws, etc. 

Now Labor Day is supposed to be this day of support of the workforce in America. Yet giving people one day off and workman’s comp doesn’t negate the fact that so many people are overworked and underpaid. I’ve heard horror stories from my friends who are new moms about the lack of maternity leave they get, and how if they are lucky enough to get it, it’s basically all unpaid. That's just one story of many.

So I’m left not having much faith in America’s true support of workers.

There’s of course more to it than that, in my opinion. (Has anyone been watching The Good Wife? Don’t you love that judge who makes everyone say, “In my opinion”? Anyone?). There’s the overarching American story behind workforce labor in our country that I fear has taken an unfortunate turn over the years. Or perhaps it’s always been this way.

Let’s start, as any good former English teacher does, with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines labor (in the working sense) as: human activity that provides the goods or services in an economy. Pretty straightforward, right? But it all sounds so robotic to me, like the proverbial cog in the wheel, and I guess that’s my main problem with our narrative behind labor/work.

Actually, in my opinion, there’s a series of ongoing narratives about work we should change:

  • We should work long hours.
  • We should always work harder.
  • We should be busy and stressed out.
  • We should never take vacations (even if we have vacation days to take).
  • We should always be glued to our phones and computers in case we miss an important work thing, even on the weekends.
  • We should work when we’re sick
  • We should rush back to work after we have children.
  • Fathers don’t need paternity leave.
  • It’s silly to think you can get away with working 40 hours a week or less.
  • No one really likes their job anyways.

I could go on and on.

What if that narrative changed?

What if we committed to doing work that was meaningful and helpful, but that didn’t take over our lives? What if more time and effort was truly focused on family and self-care, rather than sitting at a desk simply to prove one’s hard work? What if working smarter, not harder, was really a thing? What if people truly got paid what they were worth? I know I’m delving a bit into fantasy land, and I’m no economist (I admittedly dropped the one economics course I took in college. Sorry, Dad!). But as a quintessential millennial, I want more.

While it’s great that Labor Day is seen as this holiday to kick back and relax, the narrative that it’s the last time anyone can do this until Thanksgiving is ridiculous. Maybe somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, Americans can truly find that elusive work-life balance that’s advertised, touted, and not currently truly put into action. And Labor Day can be about supporting workers. And of course, barbecues.

In the comments below, let me know what you think. What does Labor Day mean to you? What does work mean to you? How could you change your current narrative?