(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)
Labor Day has lost its luster as a holiday. First celebrated on September 5, 1882 in New York City, the day consisted of a parade and celebrations to exhibit “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Now the holiday has been downgraded to back yard bar-b-ques and end of the summer getaways. The question is: who is resting on Labor Day? Certainly 15 million American’s aren’t taking the day off- because they don’t have job, as “real unemployment” rates have climbed to 16.8%.
Many of the older generation aren’t resting on Labor Day. They can’t afford to quit their jobs and retire. And, according to new data, our youth aren’t resting either. Nearly one in three workers under age 35 will be laboring on Labor Day, and almost half of them are working more than 40 hours per week. A full 50% do not have family leave time, at an age most likely to be growing a new family, 40% do not have sick leave and 33% don’t have any vacation time at all. (AFL/CIO, 2009). Not much “esprit de corp” to celebrate this year.
These grim statistics, and many more, were released in a landmark report called, “Young Workers A Lost Decade” conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and their affiliate Working America. The nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999.
The survey states; “young workers, (in 1999), were economically insecure, concerned about deteriorating job quality, distrustful of corporate America–and yet stubbornly hopeful about the future. Ten years later, the change is shocking. The status of young workers not only has not improved; its dramatic deterioration is threatening to redefine the norm in job standards. Income, health care, retirement security and confidence in being able to achieve their financial goals are down across the board. Only economic insecurity is up.”
An astounding one third of workers age 35 and under live at home with their parents – because they cannot afford housing on their own. Our best and brightest are frozen in place, while simultaneously running in circles. Many can’t afford to go to college, yet, those who do have upper level degrees can’t find jobs in their field, and are overwhelmed with student loans. Workers age 35 and under can’t afford health care, can’t get ahead, or save for the future.
AFL/CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report’s findings this way:
“We’re calling the report “A Lost Decade” because we’re seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood–put off having kids, put off education–and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons.”
Check out this short You Tube video clip of young professionals most affected by the economy speaking their minds:
The findings from this study are significant, and deeply distressing. The days of securing a job as a bank teller or in sales; settling down, buying a house and starting a family are over. The upcoming generation will emerge as the first to be worse off than their parents, and something must be done.
I have written previously about how the United States is one of the few countries that does not mandate paid vacation time for workers. We give a nod to Labor Day, but we do not believe in it. Stress related illnesses from our overworked population are the greatest burden on health care, but we do not support any measures for prevention. We complain to our government to fix our problems, but we don’t eat properly, exercise and meditate – what’s wrong with us anyway?
On Labor Day, while it is important to rest our bodies, we cannot rest in our determination to change the climate and opportunities in the work force. We cannot put our heads in the beach sand and ignore the far reaching implications of the “Lost Decade”. It is exactly the fire, imagination and energy of our nation’s young professionals that will carry us into a new era of prosperity.
While the outlook looks pretty grim for this bunch, there is a bright side to this group- they are incredibly resilient, creative and interested in service. Our working class, age 35 and under are unusually politically active – at the polls and in civic affairs, and are resoundingly optimistic President Obama can help turn things around for them to move forward as future leaders.
If we can give our youth a little room – they can get the job done. Let’s look at the health care reform issue from their perspective. While the politicians are punting sound bytes like Hail Mary’s, check out a creative approach in the “SuperMom Healthcare Truth Squad.” Picture a bunch of young women donning bright red capes and flocking in major cities across the nation to distribute information about why health care reform will help bring economic security to the nation. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, founder of MomsRising.org. writes,
“why do moms care (about health care reform?) Not only are families struggling with getting children the healthcare coverage they need for a healthy start, but 7 out of 10 women are either uninsured, underinsured, or are in significant debt due to healthcare costs.”
Julia Moulden writes about the “New Radicals” who are making money – and making a mark on the world, through social change and empowering disadvantaged workers world wide. Recently, she highlighted a new “30-something” company that helps fund entrepreneurial projects, via mini pledges instead of investors, called Kickstarter.
The original Labor Day was born in during the peak of the Industrial Revolution as a backlash to workers being on the job 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to make a basic living. Hmmm. Sound familiar? Let’s take back Labor Day for the purpose it was created, and address the basic worker’s rights to a decent paying job, health benefits, paid leave time and a positive work environment in which to thrive. And, yes, let’s remember to Rest.
About the Author: Kari Henley is currently President of the Board of Directors at the Women & Family Life Center. She organizes the Association of Women Business Leaders (AWBL), and runs her own training and consulting practice. Kari is an avid writer, active in her community, and an expert in group facilitation. She has worked for the past 17 years with corporate, non-profit and public audiences. Past clients include Yale Medical School resident program, Fed Ex, Hartford Hospital, St. Francis Hospital, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Washington Trust Co., CT Husky program, the American Cancer Society. For more information, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.