Can we talk about our love-hate relationship with work?

Opinion Column
By Michele Murphy

Labor Day 2017 looks and feels different than it did when first celebrated in the late 1800’s. Today it is largely viewed as the day marking the end of summer. While many workers enjoy a paid holiday with family picnics and a few parades, the reason the day was created has faded from our memory.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, it was not unusual for workers to work a 12-hour day, seven days a week for wages that often did not cover the basics.

Entire families joined the work force to try to scratch out enough money each week to pursue their version of the American Dream. That meant many children were in the labor force, pulled from school, because their meager earnings meant the difference between paying the rent and having food on the table.

Working conditions for many were both unsafe and unhealthy. Efforts to address child labor, worker safety, wages and working conditions led to the formation of unions. For a century, they played a significant role in American work life, although they certainly had their detractors.

Then the American economy underwent another revolution late last century when technology overtook virtually every aspect of both work and daily life.

The factories and mills that had employed our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents closed in record numbers, although those closures are not solely due to technology. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who never finished high school in order to work attended college in droves.

As boomers, gen X-ers and millennials entered the work force, blue collars increasingly turned white. While many still toil on assembly lines or do back-breaking physical work, many more sit in high-rise office buildings tethered to computer screens.

We have come a long way since the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 when 146 workers, mostly young female immigrants, were killed because factory owners locked doors from the outside to prevent them from taking breaks or stealing. They were burned alive, asphyxiated by smoke or died trying to escape by jumping from windows. Public outcry afterward led to standards that made workplaces more sanitary and safer.

But as we fast forward, I’m not sure our love-hate relationship with work has changed all that much.

Those who fought for an eight-hour workday and 40-hour work week may wince at the realization that the average American worker is again working longer hours. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American works 44 hours per week, or 8.8 hours per day. I bet you know someone who works 50 hours a week, maybe more. I certainly do, and was one of those salaried employees who understood the unwritten rule: “work until the work is done.” It never was.

Some have even begun to use the term “white collar sweatshop” to describe the conditions current workers face – job stress, workplace violence, stagnant wages, reduced pensions and health care coverage and constant worry about job security.

I’m pretty sure this covers any workplace – blue, white or no collar at all.

Studs Terkel wrote a book 43 years ago entitled “Work.” I think his words are still relevant. He said, “Work is an elemental part of nearly everyone’s life. You’re born, and before too long you have to start spending most of your time working to sustain yourself.”

If one begins to work at age 21 and works a 40-hour week until age 65, he or she will devote 88,000 hours of life to work.

Terkel also said, ““Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Maybe on this Labor Day it is time to re-start a national conversation about work; let me re-phrase – meaningful work. We easily recall situations when we were excited about work and looked forward to it. Meaningful work is a motivator. We’re happy when we know our contribution matters. Work can be meaningful whether mowing lawns, working the line, selling a product, sitting in front of a computer or curing ailments. Don’t we appreciate well-cut, green lawns; sleekly-designed cars or cool tools; the latest time-saving (or finger-saving) device for home or office; well prepared tax returns, retirement plans; or effective cures for ourselves, families and pets? Owners, workers and lawmakers need to work together – what a concept – to make work life satisfactory, not a drudgery. For those who think making work meaningful is hooey, just ask someone who is out of work – 11,400, or 7.3%, of Lorain County’s work force, for instance – whether they think it’s hooey. Then get to work.


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