It’s Labor Day weekend. It’s a time to celebrate the unofficial end of summer with a barbecue or some other outdoor gathering with family and friends. From now on, there’s no national holiday celebrated by a majority of workers until Thanksgiving. So there’s a lot of celebration and rest within the Labor Day weekend. You celebrate work and fun.
How did we celebrate Labor Day in its early years? Labor Day fetes workers who labor to make the U.S. economy work. It began in the U.S. to celebrate the rise of large trade unions at the end of the 19th century. Parades of workers marched with their respective unions’ banners to stirring music and then listened to motivating speeches. It was established as a national holiday in 1887.
Does it have a new meaning today, beyond marking the end of summer and, for many, a return to school? Over the years, Labor Day has undergone many changes. There are less union members to celebrate the day today. For example, the number of union members in the workforce in 2015 was 11.5 percent, compared 35 percent in 1954, according to the Department of Labor. Now, the celebration of Labor Day includes all people who work for a living. That’s most of us.
The demographics of the labor force, according to the Department of Labor, have changed. Women now compose 54 percent; 41 percent of the labor force have bachelor’s degrees. Labor Day parades have moved outside the major cities and are now in a few suburbs and smaller towns, e.g., there is no official parade in Keene. So where is this all headed?
Labor comprises the physical and mental efforts that provide the goods and services in our economy. It is work for which someone is paid. Given these definitions, labor covers a broader aspect of what people do in today’s factories, in schools, in the office or even in churches.
The old trade unions celebrated what each individual worker contributed. Jobs were mostly a person-machine interaction. Performance was measured in terms of individual results. Each worker had one job to perform. They often stopped at a local bar to relax and complain about the work or management before they went home to dinner and relaxation with the family. There they were the head of the household and the “bread winner.”
Today, people rarely work alone, even when on a computer. There’s a greater sense of interdependence to get work done. Both husbands and wives have jobs. There’s time to celebrate accomplishments at work, at bars, at home and still on Labor Day.
There is, beyond the traditional labor union, a new broader sense of how people are connected as never before. From the factory floor, to the office, to the supplier, to the customer, to the international market, there’s a broader view of labor relationships. Pride in work extends beyond workers and their machines, to people interacting with people for greater team accomplishment.
This weekend is still about doing a good job while providing all the goods and services to keep the economy strong. It is also about working with the person next to you, in your network, across the factory floor, and with expatriates in another country. You provide the resources to bring food to the table, products to use and services that assist in many ways. Even the sports that fill the airwaves on Labor Day are examples of teamwork, achievement and celebration. It all started with the trade unions seeking a way to celebrate in solidarity. On Labor Day, we still pay tribute to all the American workers. Let’s focus on the majority generation in today’s workforce and ask, “How will Generation Y carry on this tradition?”
What does Generation Y (or millennials) think about Labor Day? It’s an important question, since they now represent the largest generation in the labor force, according to the Pew Research Center. What do they remember of the accomplishments of trade unions on behalf of their members?
Generation Y’s priorities and practices will shape what will be celebrated in the years to come. They’re the future of the country. Each generation that preceded this one made their contributions to the work environment. Hard work, team development, collaboration, emphasis on cognitive skills, accountability, and transparency are all examples of contributions the generations from the 1930’s until today have made.
A report from the Council of Economic Advisors in 2014 recognized the creativity and innovation of millennials as a priority. They value community, family and making a contribution to society. The report recognizes that millennial managers invest substantially in human capital. The report goes on to describe millennials as more diverse and better educated than previous generations. They’ve embraced technology as an important part of their lives. So what will the Labor Day of the future look like?
It’s important, however, to recognize the contributions of the unions, past and present, that provide for the dignity of people who work for a living. They continue to be a prominent force, and should be remembered as such, especially on Labor Day. Will this change? Should it change? So what will Labor Day 2037 look like?
It will be an inclusive celebration, leaving no category of worker out. It will be a celebration with families. Children will know more about what their parents are doing at work, and they will be included in the celebrations. Small groups will celebrate in public discussions the traditions and history of different aspects and kinds of work. There may be workshops on improving work environments. Music and technology will provide other venues for celebration.
Only your imagination can provide more ideas about that future of a Labor Day rooted in the past. I’m betting it will teach you how to make a difference at work, to be practical and to be respectful. Let’s see.