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Monday, September 03, 2007

A leisurely labor day ... looking for the end of work

As you may have heard between trips out to the backyard grill or the beer stand at the nearest ballpark, today is Labor Day. We Americans are generally vague on what exactly the holiday represents, and we've grown pretty hazy on the history of the labor movement over the years as well.

For many of us, Labor Day is just one of those rare nationally observed occasions on which we take a much needed break from the work-a-day world and enjoy some valuable time with family and friends. Unless of course we toil in the never 9-to-5 service industry, as more and more of us now do, in which case we still have to slog off and punch our card, holiday or not. The military is becoming an employer of last resort for many young Americans as well, and Uncle Sam's defense is a 24/7 occupation these days, so the only break our young soldiers can expect is a surprise visit from the grandstander-in-chief (see the BBC's Bush visit seeks to bolster Iraq will).

American pundits and cultural guardians since the Industrial Age have preached the virtues of hard work and warned against the wicked ways of idleness. To this day you'll read white-collared columnists and amateur corner comedians alike mocking the holiday, which they describe as hypocritically extolling work while granting time off. The fiery sermonizing has made some of us so guilt-wracked about leisure time that we never even take the time off we're stingily granted.

It is the ability of the men and women of this country to do all the little things that make our economy go and grow that we toast when we grab a cold one from the fridge. As much as the heralds of American myth like to sing the praises of the moneyed mavericks and self-made businessmen, the truth is it was the unflagging strength of millions of workers of all stripes (and varying amounts of pay) that built this country's wealth. As just one example, we couldn't have made it through World War II, certainly one of the most pivotal moments in our history, without the women who answered the call of Rosie the Riveter (pictured above).

The American worker is a humble and conflicted sort — torn between the dream of wealth and the reality of bills due. In our self-deceiving desire for upward mobility, we often convince ourselves we've got more in common with the corporate execs who run those mass media opinion-makers than the folks selling their newspapers to us at the corner store and coffee shop.

Everyone in America believes they're climbing that social ladder despite the economic trends that show an ever narrowing ledge around the topmost floor. As the gap betwen rich and poor continues to widen, the safety net meant to catch those precariously perched and about to plunge has been worn thread bare by years of neglect.

The fact is that the nature of work is changing and our societal thinking tends to lag far behind the times — often taking generations to catch up. Back in 1995, economist Jeremy Rifkin wrote a book called The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, which was pretty popular among those left of center politically. It described the spread of automation and the resulting decline in manufacturing sector jobs. It challenged us to face up to the changing global economy and do some forward thinking to soften the crush of the inevitable waves the technology is churning up.

So far the economy has proven flexible enough to forestall the predicted crisis. It's also helped that the American worker is more than willing to run a lot faster to keep up with the shifting rules of the new global rat race. Productivity has continued to go up as wages have stagnated over the past 20 years.

This doesn't mean, however, that we've cleared all the hurdles. The nation's economy is being propped up by a lot of debt, and as the threat of the housing crisis shows, one good shake could bring it all down on us. If that happens, we'll certainly need to rethink our attitudes toward leisure, as we'll have plenty of spare time on our hands.

The boom and bust cycles of the past have thrust that reality on us before, as XTC sang about in the Margaret Thatcher led England of the '80s. Whether or not Rifkin's prediction of a more systemic crisis proves correct, there's no doubt working people from around the world will be asked to shoulder some heavy burdens again in the future.

Leisure
by XTC

Leisure ...
They taught me how to work, but they can't teach me how to shirk correctly.

As you see, Science once again robs us of our jobs.
They've put a micro-chip in my place,
I hide behind a screen of aggression nowadays,
It's just a way of saving some face.

So now I'm permanently drunk, like the rest of the race with ... Leisure.
If you think I'm clowning, I assure you that I'm drowning here in ... Leisure.
They taught me how to work, but they can't teach me how to shirk correctly.

I spend all day, and all my allowance on T.V. games.
Amusement heaven at the flick of a switch.
Instead of a lathe I busy my fingers nowadays,
By scoring goals with the gentlest twitch.

I've forgotten how to use my legs to invade the pitch of ... Leisure
If you think I'm clowning, I assure you that I'm drowning here in ... Leisure
They taught me how to work, but they can't teach me how to shirk correctly.

They had retired me 'fore I left school,
(just saw no point in the standing in line)
So I spend lots of time lounging at home,
(why not come in 'cause the carpet is fine)
What a waste of breath it is,
Searching for the jobs that don't exist.

So now I'm permanently drunk, like the rest of the race with ... Leisure.
If you think I'm clowning, I assure you that I'm drowning here in ... Leisure.
They taught me how to work, but they can't teach me how to shirk correctly.

Lazybones, looking through The Sun,
How'd you ever expect to find your day's work?
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