Labor Day is one of those holidays that has its roots in history, but is seasonal in its experience. It always marked the end of the summer, and where I grew up in the Midwest, it coincided with a sensory overload of visual, auditory, and olfactory wonders.
The Labor Day holiday drew a line between long, hot summer nights and incrementally earlier twilight that required a jacket or sweater. And while there would be a week or two of hot days that seemed to trigger the falling of more leaves, you knew that it was time to put away the cotton and bring out the wool.
The trees turning colors was always bittersweet. The incredible beauty and variability of the maple trees, elms, and oaks as their transition from summer fullness of green to autumn hues, then stark leafless branches were magical. But once divested of leaves, the inevitability of winter was undeniable.
The sound of geese honking as they made their way north would cause me to scan the sky looking for the distinctive V-shape. There would always be a straggler goose, who I suspect got distracted by something or was day-dreaming and just lost track of where he was headed. I certainly identified with that!
Fall had a distinctive smell to it. Some of this may have come from the burning of leaves, while some of it came from the turning of the earth as gardens were bedded down for the winter and the ground lay fallow. There was also a change in the wind. Summer winds were softer; autumn winds carried a bite.
From my young-self perspective, Labor Day meant a return to school. It was the promise of new books, new teachers, and new clothes. There would be reunions with school chums and the occasional new face that joined the class. All this was both exciting and a bit anxiety provoking. But once back into the classroom, all felt normal again.
Labor Day as History
I was raised in a pro-union family and lived in a pro-union city. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I was aware of the power of unions as well as the corruption of their leaders. Jimmy Hoffa was the poster-boy for corruption; Cesar Chavez was a hero.
For the most part, unions made good things happen for people who, by themselves, would be unable to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Union members earned good wages, could afford a nice house, were guaranteed a steady income in retirement and had dignity.
Oh, How Things Have Changed
The difference between Labor Day, 2021 and Labor Day 1971 couldn’t be more stark. Fifty years ago there were more union members in manufacturing than any other group. Today, the largest numbers of union members can be found in government, followed by health care and education. Of course, total union membership overall has declined precipitously from its heyday in the 1950s.
For those of us over 65, retirement benefits that were once guaranteed for life if you were a union member, now are at risk. In some cases this is due to the corruption that remains, but in other cases it is a reflection of the economy and the declining influence that unions have.
According to the Pension Rights Center, the median benefit in 2019 for a retired worker (non-government) was only $10,788 for the year. Government workers fared much better, with a median income of $27,687 for federal workers and $22,662 for state. These figures do not include Social Security benefits. Even so, the dream of living out one’s years with sufficient income to keep a roof over your head and food in the fridge is fading.
Status of Older Workers
The result of this is that many aging adults not only want to continue working because they find it fulfilling, they NEED to work in order to make ends meet. This need runs counter to the implicit agreement that once you hit 65, you will leave the workforce and no longer draw down that outrageous income achieved over years of service. This will permit the younger workers to enter the workforce and rise to the top. In short, it is a cyclical model.
The Nature of Work
But this is no longer the nature of work. We have gone from pushing a plow to pushing paper to pushing buttons. The physical toll of work has changed greatly, resulting in fewer long-term consequences and better overall health. This means that many of us can look forward to decades of active living after we retire instead of just months or years.
Challenge and Opportunity
How should we manage this bottleneck that is stopping younger workers from entering the workforce while still taking advantage of the wealth of experience and knowledge that older workers have? The challenge is in re-imagining work.
We need to drop this notion that there is an end-date to working. There is no contest on the assembly line between a younger worker and an older worker. But we are no longer working on an assembly line, so we shouldn’t be using that as the metric.
Because we have an arbitrary date for retirement, we measure our capacity to continue to work by age, not competence, experience, desire, or ability. The consequence is that we are sidelining potential sources of wisdom and experience that just might prove essential given the challenges we are facing.
Older Workers are Capable
Older workers are more than capable of doing things; they may not do them as quickly or the same way as younger workers, but the final goal can and will be achieved. Older workers have extensive experience in solving problems because they have most likely seen the problem before and found solutions. A key resource in accomplishing most tasks is the ability to conceptualize what is needed. Older workers are able to do this BECAUSE of their experience.
Not all aging adults want to continue working. But for those of us who do, there are endless opportunities for exploring new frontiers. Whether it is finding work as an Uber driver, creating your own niche service online, or starting a new career doing something you always wanted to do, we are living in a time where re-thinking what work is and how to value your services or products is limited only by your energy and imagination.
So as we celebrate Labor Day this year, let us remember the hard-won benefits that sustained us over the years, and pay homage to the unions who continue to fight for good wages, good working conditions, and the dignity of work for all. There is much work to be done, and there are many older workers who are capable and willing to meet the challenge.