Labor Day and the Future of American Jobs

I started the long holiday weekend with another five-mile run on the concrete this morning at 5 a.m. Bad news: still considerable pain in my left foot and upper left leg. Good news: I’m still out doing something that I enjoy — and the weather this week has been perfect, cool, clear and hardly a trace of wind.

Let’s hope the weather holds for the holiday weekend. It’s a time to celebrate, ah, a long weekend? I was thinking about that while running this morning. What does Labor Day really stand for these days? Labor unions are in decline and have been for decades. Many American workers — those in retail and service jobs — don’t get the holiday off. Manufacturing jobs are pretty much kaput. And by some estimates as many as 14 million Americans are unemployed, federal government stimulus money not withstanding and maybe not even forthcoming.

Oh well. Let’s enjoy the weather. Push away from the computer. Put your BlackBerry or iPhone in the drawer. Smash the TV with a sledgehammer. (Oops. Well, you get the idea.) Get outside and enjoy. But also consider at least for a minute why we celebrate a three-day weekend at the start of every September.

Since I didn’t have a clue, I did some research and went to the Web site of the U.S. Department of Labor. And here’s the brief history of Labor Day:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

First Labor Day — 1882. OK. Times have changed. Jobs have changed. But it’s still important to celebrate the accomplishments of American workers.

Also important to consider what is happening to the workforce and how some trends will influence the future of American jobs. Two recent articles in the traditional media (hey, thank you reporters for writing stories and generating content) illustrate the point.

First, many older workers, according to an article by Catherine Rampell and Matthew Saltmarsh (“A Reluctance to Retire Means Fewer Openings“), “are unable, or afraid, to retire.” Big implications here, particularly for younger people now working or looking for work, or for the unemployed who may have to stand in line for a long time if companies and other organizations delay hiring. Many of the estimates about jobs in this country before the Great Recession hinged on the belief that old gasbags like me would exit the workforce. Nobody lives or works forever, but it doesn’t appear that us baby boomers are going to embark on the job-free golden years anytime soon.

Second, for the first time, it’s expected that women will soon outnumber men in the workforce. (Dennis Cauchon, USA Today, “Women gain as men lose jobs.” Implications: Job losses are coming in manufacturing areas that were traditionally male-dominated and that paid more than the jobs many women are getting in retail and service industries.  Are we reaching the point where families will require two (or more) incomes to make a go of it in this country? Also, as more women enter the workforce, look for more of a push for flexible work arrangements and mandated time off because of the realities of both child and elder care.

These are trends that will shape the American workforce and jobs for years to come.

Probably can’t do much about any of it in the next few days. So we might as well enjoy the long holiday weekend.

But while running, biking, cooking out and whatever, let’s consider why we do celebrate Labor Day. And let’s recognize that we have some major issues ahead of us as a nation — and as workers.

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