Monday, September 07, 2009

Labor's Love Lost

Previous generations marked the holiday with parades, speeches and editorials honoring the dignity of work. Today's theme is despair over failure to find jobs.

"Labor Day 2009 is a terrible time to be an American worker," writes Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson.

"Official unemployment hovers just under 10 percent, its highest level since the early 1980s. Add in the partly employed and those who have given up on hunting for jobs because there are so few jobs to be had, and the unemployed and underemployed total 16.8 percent of the labor force--one out of six American workers."

Perhaps most significant is the growing new category, "discouraged workers," an estimated 758,000 Americans who "have not looked in the last four weeks because they believe that no jobs are available or that they would not qualify."

In a world where people tend to define themselves by what they do, this kind of psychological depression exacerbates economic woes. As someone retired from work I loved, it stirs memories of how lucky I felt to get up every morning and support my family without drudgery.

At 15, I had had a summer job as a shipping clerk, standing at a table, wrapping cartons. More and more kept appearing and soon I was swimming against a cardboard tide that threatened to swamp me if I stop pulling brown paper off a huge roll and wrestling it around packages.

By noon, I was getting the hang of it and I ate a sandwich in a kind of dreamy stupor. But when I started working again, time had slowed. My hands and arms kept moving, but my mind was in blank panic. All I could think about was the clock on the wall as I pushed the second hand with each breath. By the end of that endless day, I knew what it meant to be beside yourself.

Since then, my respect for people who do what they have to do to earn a living has been boundless. It's heartbreaking to see unemployment keep inching up, depriving millions not only of income but of their sense of independence and dignity from their labors.

By this time next year, with any luck, we can go back to celebrating Labor Day instead of bemoaning it.


Fuzzy Slippers said...

This is truly beautiful.

Holte Ender said...

I don't think the economy has finished squeezing the American family yet, plus any recovery, if and when it comes, will be a jobless recovery. Employers will be too nervous to hire until they are sure the ground has stopped shaking.