Celebrate Labor Day, Then Get to Work

Although I’ve had pretty much of a management life (which is unavoidable when you keep starting companies) when Labor Day rolls around, I get flashbacks to the time I walked more than a few picket lines. And, when I hear that the number of people carrying union cards is dropping in the US, I’m disturbed at the imbalance of power that lack of collective bargaining must surely imply.

Economists believe in full employment. And, most Americans think that work builds character. But what if jobs aren’t working anymore?

The official US unemployment rate is below 6%.

One fourth of the adults actually employed in the US are paid wages lower than would lift them above the official poverty line – and so a fifth of American children live in poverty.

Almost half of employed adults in this country are eligible for food stamps (and most of those who are eligible don’t apply).

Oxford economists who study employment trends tell us that almost half of existing jobs, including those involving ‘non-routine cognitive tasks’ – you know, like thinking – are at risk of death by computerization within 20 years.

Maybe it’s just that I love what I do, but jobs mean even more than the money they immediately provide. They are rungs on career ladders, wherever those exist. They are the means to learning how to work more cooperatively, and they are sources of satisfaction that are particularly human: the knowledge that you have contributed to something bigger than yourself.

So I’m asking you to think about how to make Labor Day a reason to celebrate again: fair wages, working conditions, all the things that unions have fought for. And I’m also asking you to consider, what would happen if robots did all the work that people do now? Would the nature of what it means to be human also change?

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