Today we celebrate the Labor Day holiday in the United States; most of us will have a quiet day off from work, enjoy a barbecue with family and friends, and maybe shop an online (or offline) sale or two. We forget that the Labor Day holiday was signed into law by President Grover Cleveland after the infamous Pullman Strike was put down in violent fashion by Federal troops in 1894 (workers couldn’t make ends meet when George Pullman slashed wages in response to the depression of the 1890s, but didn’t cut rents in his Chicago company town), as a way to ease the tensions among labor, management, and capital that had been brewing for quite some time. In the wake of the Pullman Strike, labor unions became far more popular, providing a voice to laborers who had long been exploited by those who owned the factories and set wages and working conditions.

123 years after the national Labor Day holiday became law, unions have become much less popular as the kind of work that most unionized laborers in the US had performed has either been outsourced to foreign countries where wages are much lower and worker protections more scarce, or has disappeared altogether in the wake of increasing automation. However, most “knowledge workers” in the US today complain about being over-worked and under tremendous stress, as ubiquitous internet connectivity, powerful mobile computing devices, and the demands of increasing automation and competition around the world have created an “always on” work culture that practically demands 24 X 7 availability. Such workaholism is even glorified in the Silicon Valley start-up culture by celebrity entrepreneurs such as Gary Vaynerchuk, who urges audiences in his talks that in order to attain the highest heights of success (think private jets and exotic cars) they need to be willing to sacrifice everything in the short term. We’ve forgotten the struggles of the Pullman workers, forgotten what they struggled for, forgotten that there’s life outside of work, forgotten that we don’t need to internalize management into some kind of “super” super-ego that won’t ever let us rest, and forgotten that Labor Day should remind us that, yes, paid work at best can be ennobling and meaningful, but that at worst it can suck our souls dry even as it consumes all our waking hours if we’re not very, very careful.

So, I’d like everyone reading this to take just a few moments and think about the true meaning of Labor Day and about the true meaning of their own work. Ask yourself some tough questions:

  • Am I working too many hours each work – so many that I don’t have time for my spouse, kids, friends, or other pursuits that bring me joy?
  • Am I getting enough sleep?
  • Am I eating crappy “convenience foods” because it’s too much time and effort to prepare nutritious meals made of real food – you know, stuff that’s not in plastic packages with tons of preservatives, flavor enhancers, and who knows what else?
  • Am I happy?
  • Would I rather be doing something else, something that gives expression to my true talents and desires?
  • Would I still be doing what I’m doing for work, if I weren’t getting paid to do it?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian writer who spent too many years in the gulags as a guest of the Soviets, famously said that “Work is what horses die of. Everybody knows that.” This Labor Day, let’s truly honor the work of all Americans, including ourselves, by making sure that the work we do is not killing us, but lifting us up, bringing us joy, creating services and products that are useful, needed, and honorable, and that we keep work in its proper place by remembering and focusing on those things that truly give our lives meaning and purpose: our families, our true talents and passions, proper physical, mental, and spiritual self-care, and the true joy that comes from the “serious play” of creating something new every day. Happy Labor Day!

One Response

  1. Jay A. Mattlin says:

    Powerful! Well-written and thought-provoking.

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