Recently I listened while two young men beginning college as they discussed where college would lead them.
“I’m not going for something because of the money," one said. "I want it to be something I like.”
His friend was not so sure that money wasn’t in first place for his career, future work.
A few days ago someone else told me that, when her sister was moving from the Midwest to New York City for her first real job, her mother advised her, “Remember, you are going to be working for a long time. Make sure you choose something that you would like to do even if you weren’t being paid for it.”
American poet Robert Frost understood what the young man and the concerned mother were saying when he wrote “Two Tramps in Mudtime,” which concludes with these words:
Only when love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future’s sake.
But many contemporary Americans would be more likely to react to these speakers with weariness, even scorn of what sounds too idealistic in 2012. After all, too many Americans are without any kind of compensated work. And without adequate salaried employment, too many people drop into poverty, are unable to support families, meet their responsibilities, live with human dignity.
The Labor Day holiday we celebrate this weekend arose out of the labor movement of the 19th century when laborers had few rights and few days away from their jobs. The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated 130 years ago in New York City, and it was a holiday that arose primarily out of human concerns.
On Labor Day 2012 we are awash in campaign rhetoric that voices the need for jobs and the implications of financial crisis. The human realities surrounding work and the absence of work are often not present in the speeches and ads, which themselves frequently lack a human touch. It seems to me that, on Labor Day 2012, a view from the perspective of compassion needs to raise some of the human questions that surround work in our time.
Here are a few:
- What happens to families, to children when the breadwinners have been down-sized, smart sized?
- How do the many persons who have lost jobs, who find their skills are no longer employable in today’s job market , or whose age and work experience effectively bar them from new employment, how do these neighbors deal with this new powerlessness?
- What about women who head households but cannot take a job because they cannot find or afford suitable childcare?
- How does stress take over human life for employed persons who through technology are constantly working at their jobs—onsite, traveling, at home, sick or well, weekends, “holidays” or weekdays? What is it like to be “elsewhere” most of the time? What do you pay attention to?
- What are the effects on workers employed in corporate situations where job loss is a constant threat because of ongoing reorganization and budget cutting?
- And what about those who work “illegally?” How do certain laws impact them and the families they are trying to support? How much abuse are they subject to in their work?
- And what are the effects on the individual and on our country when persons ignore their gifts, their creativity, the ways in which they could make a contribution to our common life because of the absence of jobs or adequate salary and support?
- And what happens to work done when the individuals doing it don’t care about their work?
Certainly the answers to these questions are complex. But if we are going to celebrate a national holiday, Labor Day, we need to put some priority on the human dimensions of work and explore together meaningful solutions to what is often inhuman in work and in the absence of work in our country.
In 1909 the American Federation of Labor resolved that the Sunday preceding Labor Day be adopted as Labor Sunday and be dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement. Labor Sunday didn’t last, but the need for attention to the human dimensions of labor continues to challenge us and our compassion.