- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2008



Labor Day is generally regarded as simply a day off - the end of the summer, a day to rest, a time to shop. For most, it presents an opportunity to catch up on all the chores we just can’t get done during the workweek. Yet Labor Day is a time to recall the fabulous contribution of American workers in rendering this a nation of outstanding achievement and prosperity. It should be a time to reflect upon the dignity and beauty of work - and the proper sphere of leisure.

The first labor celebration was held on Sept. 5, 1882 in New York City. Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, along with Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, are considered the founders of the original “workingmen’s holiday.” Mr. McGuire suggested honoring those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” A parade of approximately 10,000 workers marched from City Hall to Union Square. They then had a picnic, listened to a concert and to speeches. In subsequent years, other states followed their example. In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation which made the first Monday of September a federal holiday.

On this Labor Day, we might gain much wisdom by comparing our daily lives to the lives of the 10,0000 workers who marched for their rights in the 19th century - and who established this day of festivity and recollection. How much have our lives improved since then? What new challenges have emerged?

Working men and women have come a long way from the 19th-century battles in which they were often at odds with exploitative employers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are currently 15.4 million labor union members nationwide - and unions have firmly established their place in many industries. In the 19th century, women were confined mostly to the private sphere of the home. Today, the labor force is more diverse, consisting of 82.1 million men and 70.7 million women. In the 19th century, the average American worked 12 hours per day and seven days each week, often in hazardous conditions. Children were also employed, as child labor laws were initially non-existent and then, once enacted, not strictly enforced. Today, working conditions have vastly improved - men, women and children enjoy rich legal protections regarding every aspect of their employment, including the amount of hours they work and their safety.

Indeed, many workers still face daunting challenges: 7.6 million workers hold down more than one job; 3 million workers face commutes of 90 or more minutes each day and 8 percent of laborers work more than 60 hours per week. Yet, the vast majority of Americans have abundant choice in the kind of job they undertake and the number of hours they wish to devote to their employment.

In contrast to the 19th century, Americans no longer consider it sufficient to simply work as a means of satisfying the bread-and-butter needs of their family. The concept of “work” is now more often linked to the notion of a “career”; that is, finding our mission and leaving our mark in the world. In considering our job options, we take into account our likes and dislikes, our attributes and skills. We weigh whether the job is truly “satisfying.” This contemporary angst is indeed a luxury, for it demonstrates that employment is not strictly a matter of necessity as it was for most of our forefathers; it is now a matter of individual fulfillment.

However, as standards and expectations rise in the 21st century, one of the most-oft heard complaints is that there is a shortage of “time”in our lives. A new word has entered the lexicon - “multi-tasking” - doing multiple chores at once in order to save time. Is this perception of lacking time because we have too much work to do compared to our ancestors or because work and leisure have been entirely re-defined?

According to a study conducted by the Heritage Foundation in August, 2007, titled “Upwards Leisure Mobility: Americans Have More Leisure Time than Ever Before,” since the mid-1960’s, the amount of time the typical American spends working fell by eight hours per week. And the time the average American spent on leisure activities rose by just under seven hours per week. The study reports that this additional leisure time “is equivalent to an extra seven to nine weeks of vacation per year.”

Also, more Americans have recreational activities than previous generations; since 1970, Americans steadily spend more money on their hobbies. Lower-income Americans now work less and enjoy more leisure than higher-income Americans. The study finds that it is precisely this propensity to work less that accounts for the lower pay among low-income earners. Hence, leisure is a major aspect of the life of every American worker.

Individual fulfillment is thus no longer defined as simply being a servant of the family through labor. Now, there is great pressure to have multiple achievements both inside and outside of the workplace. For example, a woman who has an employment and raises her children also feels the need to have “me” time - time to exercise, to pursue hobbies. This means that increasingly “leisure” is being intruded upon with more and more requirements. The lives of children have also been filled with so many activities that there has emerged the concept of the “soccer mom”: the woman who shuffles her children from one activity to the next. Thus, leisure is no longer defined as simply rest from work, or doing things we enjoy - leisure itself is full of social expectations, demands and pressures.

As material and social standards increase for America’s workers, we are unable to make key distinctions. The line between work and play is being blurred; there is ceaseless consumerism - and ceaseless activity. Are we essentially crowding out the spiritual and supernatural from our lives - that which gives us perspective on work and play?

This Labor Day, in solidarity with the 10,000 19th-century laborers who established a day of rest, let us give thanks to the many blessings we enjoy as a result of the work of all who came before us. Let us also reflect on how American prosperity has resulted in a constant lack of “time” in our daily lives: Is this really due to too much work or to utter confusion regarding our essential values and priorities?

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