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Does working still work?

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It’s hard to believe Labor Day is right around the corner — we just got through Memorial Day. Summer cannot end yet. But since the calendar ignores our most fervent wishes, it is a good time to reflect on labor.

Labor Day celebrates the men and women of this country who fought hard for the rights of workers. It became a U.S. federal holiday in 1894 as a product of the labor movement. But some states officially recognized Labor Day even earlier to pay tribute to the achievements of their workers.

On Sept. 5, 1882, New York City union leaders organized what is now considered the country’s first Labor Day parade, according to National Geographic. But beyond parades and parties, labor is a serious subject worth reconsidering this year.

Firstly, labor conditions in America in the 1800s were terrible and led to the formation of the Labor Day holiday following the Pullman Strike, a nationwide railroad boycott that turned fatal and revealed the horrific conditions for many workers.

There was a time when the average American put in a 12-hour workday and seven-day work week to make basic wages. Conditions were hazardous. Workers were exploited — especially women and children who labored in sweat shops and mills. 

The first question: Have labor conditions changed over the years? Yes. Laws improved along with regulation of the workplace and a culture of respect for work. Today, we are discussing the possibility of a four-day work week, working from home and other revolutionary labor concepts that were unthinkable in the last century. We should celebrate some of those freedoms, although not every worker can enjoy them.

The second serious question today: Who wants to work, and where? In 2021, a record number of workers left their jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 47 million Americans voluntarily quit their jobs — an unprecedented mass exit from the workforce. Worker shortages appeared everywhere, from doctors’ offices to pizzerias. 

What is called the “Great Resignation” reflected something broken in the relationship between workers and work. Many complained about work-life balance; others felt uninspired and unsatisfied in their jobs. Many wanted more flexibility in where and when they worked. That is something we still need to address. What has driven people to change jobs so often?

A Harvard Business School study warns companies and businesses to think about the factors that shifted the labor market before sickness did: “retirement, relocation, reconsideration, reshuffling and reluctance.” These are impulses that are now baked into the workforce.

Where financially possible, people want more time with family and friends, and want the freedom to explore places to live and work. Social mobility, transportation and the evolution of work have led to people moving in and out of jobs for years leading up to the COVID-19 outbreak, which exacerbated and accelerated those trends.

Work is often a partnership between the employer and the employee. Some of these agreements are legislated; others are informal. Work is a human commitment between people, a kind of social contract that makes life possible.

Work is also a reflection of economic conditions and what people can “afford” to do. When layoffs are at low levels, and demand for employment is high, workers gain leverage to demand higher pay and better conditions — a good thing. Wage growth for the average worker in America was up 6 percent in April, relative to last April — the largest yearly increase in over 20 years, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

But the more complex work phenomenon then becomes how hard someone wants to work at the expense of doing other things. A new phenomenon is “quiet quitting,” which is essentially staying at your job but dialing back on the hours. In short, it means deciding not to hustle too much to avoid burnout

The job market today is robust and resilient, despite harsh inflation. But human impulses to work have changed, and the economy is changing. If experts are correct, the job market may shift in a downward direction. Experts say job growth is slowing and unemployment claims are rising. Companies are beginning to consider layoffs, and many report planning to freeze positions. 

This Labor Day will test the willingness of people to stay in jobs and resist the temptation to find workarounds to work. We need workers in every sector, from health care to commerce. We need pilots to fly planes and assembly workers to keep us competitive and supplied.

We also need freedom from work to enjoy our free time. We need to work and not to work. That is going to be a difficult balancing act, as it’s always been.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice for Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Tags great resignation Labor Day labor movement labor unions working conditions working from home

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