Citizens of the United States observe Labor Day this year on Sept. 2, the 125th anniversary of the creation of that federal holiday to honor U.S. workers. Catholic social thought, which has always placed a priority on labor because it is simultaneously a human and not just economic factor, celebrates the rights of workers that Labor Day honors.
A century and a quarter after the first federal Labor Day, what is the sense of celebrating this day? Isn’t Labor Day just the symbolic “end of summer” heralding, in most places, a new school year? Hasn’t America’s labor force changed dramatically since 1894?
Yes, labor has changed, but some of the same issues persist, even if their form has changed. It’s almost redundant to say that the American workforce is changing, because it’s always been changing. Still, some issues remain. Consider the problem of labor and time.
One of the earliest achievements of the U.S. labor movement was a fixed eight-hour day/40-hour workweek, a win that had to be fought for and was not guaranteed until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937. Laissez-faire capitalists insisted that a normative cap on the workweek infringed the worker’s autonomy, restricting his capacity to sell his labor as he pleased. That view did not, of course, take account of the uneven playing field between employer and employee, particularly when the latter often lived paycheck to paycheck, with little to no social insurance network against injury, disability or even death.
The triumph of the 40-hour workweek was the first achievement of “work-life balance.” After all, however you slice them, there are but 24 hours to a day. The 40-hour workweek gave workers eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours of their “own” time, which usually involved caring for a family.
That understanding of work within a work-life balance has over time eroded. Forty-hour workweeks largely prevailed in the disappearing manufacturing sector. “Professional” workers — businessmen, lawyers, accountants — were never really subject to that cap. The “professional” was expected to “get the job done,” no matter how long it took.
As the workforce transitioned from a manufacturing to a “professional,” knowledge-based profile, the normative workweek once again has become an issue. As Kay Hymowitz puts it, work has become “greedy.” This “greedy work” has pushed back, particularly among the growing professional classes, against the eight-hour day/40-hour workweek.
Since our bodies eventually assert their need for rest, the usual victim of the expansive reach of “greedy work” is the worker’s “leisure” time, which usually means diminished time with one’s family.
The distorting efforts of “greedy work” are myriad. The rise of the “24/7” supermarket is one example. Professionals may very well have to do grocery shopping at 11pm or 5am because that’s their only “free” time. It’s not a matter of consumerism as much as reality: The bread that has to be put on the table has to be bought sometime. If the breadwinner is working 12- to 16-hour days (not unusual in the professional classes, especially at critical moments like closing a deal) then shopping has to be squeezed in somewhere.
The ripple effects of such organization of labor flow across the board. In order to accommodate the professional worker who needs to shop at midnight, other workers must also labor at those odd hours. It’s not a matter of choice: The availability of a worker for shiftwork is sometimes a consideration to getting a job at all. So the worker who might prefer working only when the sun is shining and never on Sunday is disadvantaged because his normal expectations clash with the economy we have allowed to grow this way.
Remuneration for the professional “key workers” may be greater, but at what cost to their humanity and that of their families? A colleague recently expressed pride that her 2-year-old was growing self-reliant and independent because Mom’s professional job kept her in the office an average 12-14 hours per day. Current newspeak calls this child “resilient.”
Do we dare ask what kind of society wants “resilient” 2-year-olds so that their mothers can advance in their professional world, given that many “glass ceilings” have long been shattered?
We are also told that this slavish job market is the reality of a globalized economy: Somebody has to be monitoring the Shanghai stock market when it opens at 9pm Eastern time or the opening bell on the Frankfurt DAX when it rings at 3am. Perhaps — but I don’t hear much parallel discussion about how work might have to adapt to workers, rather than vice versa. Nor do I hear much about the “team” aspect of such work, notwithstanding that “teamwork” is all the rage in current elementary and secondary pedagogy. No, the highly compensated Lone Ranger still remains our model of professional ambition, with no other option available.
The problem is that this model soon became normative. It sets expectations for the workforce that renders the worker interested in a more humane work-life balance the odd man out, likely to be passed over in promotion or even for more responsible roles of which such an outlier is capable because he or she is not “adaptable” or “flexible.”
One might ask whether these reasons, and not overt sex discrimination, also underlies wage disparities between men and women. Women who do not or cannot compete on a “professional” track that ignores the worker’s personal and familial life are not any less “professional.”
Just as society once recognized a need to set social policy in fixing the length of the workday and workweek, so today we might ask whether “career expectations” that ignore family life need to be tempered by public policy, especially when they appear to have a disparate impact on women who choose to value their families, a choice that shouldn’t happen at the expense of their professional lives.
Humans are the authors of culture, including the culture of the workplace and work. We need to examine the culture that prevails among our growing professional classes, asking whether it and its effects are outcomes that we as a society want to encourage or even accept.
We have made such decisions in the past; we should not fear them now. Society, as well as the individual, has an interest in work-life balance. Work-life balance promotes stronger families, which is an individual, social and even commercial interest. But as things now stand, we run the risk of allowing the values of the shortsighted businessman — who does not think he has a stake in a stable, healthy and responsible rising generation — to form the workforce of tomorrow.
We can learn a lot from yesterday’s fight for a fixed, balanced workweek. Indeed, the work should benefit the worker and not the other way around — and we would all do well to remember that this Labor Day.
John M. Grondelski writes from
Falls Church, Virginia. All views
expressed here are his.