This past weekend we celebrated Labor Day, the unofficial, symbolic end to summer. But what is labor and why should there be a day to celebrate it?
Generally we think of work in an individual way. What do you do for work? What do I want to be when I grow up? How can I fill this position? Certainly here at ATR we place individual consultants in individual positions, so we too are focused on “individual” work.
But each of our individual labors has a collective importance too. We are all part of something larger than ourselves – society. As soon as human beings began forming groups – working together to hunt and gather food, build shelters, and ensure safety from predators – we agreed to rely on each other to get everything done. Showing up for your job isn’t just something that your boss expects it’s something that we all expect of each other. Society only functions well when we all participate, when we all do our job, our work. Now much of that work is paid labor but the work of maintaining our homes, the land we live on, and our communities as a whole is also part of this societal pact. Charitable and volunteer work, the work involved with raising a family, these are part of the way the work of society is completed.
What happens when people don’t do the work that they are expected to? Well, quite simply, society breaks down, in large and small ways. A single person calling in sick affects many more people than you might realize at first. Anytime there is work left undone, it has a ripple effect across society. On the larger scale, we’ve all seen the results of serious strikes. When teachers aren’t there to teach or police and fireman there to keep us safe or sanitation workers there to haul our trash away, we see the effects magnified.
Work isn’t something that we do just to earn a pay check. We also do it because without the work of society getting done, society would collapse. Instead of each of us trying to do everything needed to provide for our subsistence we share the work. Our pact includes a promise that between all of us, we’ll get what needs to be done, done. Some of us grow food, some of us cook it. Some of us make cars and some of us build the roads for the cars to run on. Some choose to teach, some to protect, some to invent and manufacture. We’ve become ever more increasingly specialized in the division of labor since the moment the first tribes formed thousands of years ago and we first began to divvy up the “chores.”
Labor Day was established to celebrate the working man and his achievements. Specifically it was an opportunity to recognize the contribution of skilled craftsman and everyday laborers. But I think it is fitting to use the occasion to contemplate the larger meaning of labor and the role that it plays not just in our individual lives but in the larger society as a whole. When we talk about unemployment rates and talent shortages we are thinking about individuals but the consequences are holistic within our society. We not only need to work for our own individual wellbeing but we need everyone working and the right work getting done for the wellbeing of our society. As we continue to look for solutions to today’s challenges, keeping this big picture in mind is a good idea. Creating opportunity and ensuring that we have a vital, dynamic workforce are not things that we should do because someone needs a job but rather because we all need our society to be fully employed to get the work done! That’s the message for this Labor Day.
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