Like many national holidays, Labor Day is suffering from neglect. Just as Memorial Day has the misfortune of being reduced to merely signaling the start of summer — as I discussed a few months back — Labor Day has become its holiday bookend: Another empty three-day weekend, and an excuse for Back to School sales or a final summer barbecue. This loss of meaning is a missed opportunity to re-energize the nation and reinforce the promise of Brand America.
Granted, every working stiff deserves a day off to relax and recreate, but in today's economic and labor climate, Labor Day should be the most meaningful holiday of the year. American workers are suffering disproportionately in the current financial crisis as unemployment hovers around 10%, and the same percentage of Americans are over 90 days behind on their mortgages. Even the usually staid Financial Times is announcing the death of the middle class and the end of the American Dream. With an increasing belief that socioeconomic mobility is now less possible in the US than in other countries, Labor Day has the potential to reclaim some of its initial promise — a celebration of American labor and an inspiration to the American worker.
Leisure vs. Labor
A creation of the turn-of-the-century labor movement, Labor Day constitutes a tribute to the people most responsible for America's freedom and prosperity: American workers. It was first recognized as a national holiday six days after the 1894 Pullman labor strike was violently broken, in an effort by President Grover Cleveland to regain the favor of labor in an uncertain election year.
There's an opportunity on Labor Day to raise awareness that American workers still make things — really cool things.
In its initial conception, Labor Day was a time of both recreation and renewal. The Department of Labor website explains that the first Labor Day called for street parades to demonstrate "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations" to the public, followed by recreational activities and amusements for workers and their families. By 1909, a resolution by the American Federation of Labor (the "AFL" in AFL-CIO) had dedicated the preceding Sunday to "the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement." Clearly "labor movement" had a different connotation back then, and the nation as a whole took the concept of "labor" a little more seriously?and, it could be argued, more positively.
Over the years, Labor Day has become about anything but labor. If you ask the average American, you might get references to the end of summer, the start of school and football season, or perhaps the last day you can wear white (though that rule's been outdated for some time). What you'll rarely get is a reflection on the accomplishments of American workers, a discussion about keeping labor competitive, or most importantly, anything that might inspire a new generation of workers.
This loss of meaning correlates strongly with organized labor's decline. Couple that with the rise of the leisure class, a dimmed view of trades and skilled labor, and lackluster political leadership, and you have a missed opportunity to inspire American workers and reconnect them to the American dream. Making Labor Day meaningful to increasingly disenfranchised workers requires the creation of new customs and forms of celebration.
Made in America
Over the past several decades, Americans have been trained to believe we can shop our way out of any financial crisis. We are still the largest manufacturing nation in the world (at least for another year until it is predicted that we'll lose our 110-year leadership position to China), but have convinced an entire generation that we don't need to make things in order to prosper. Our educational system reinforces this perception, removing workshops from schools and banishing apprenticeships and trade study to options of last resort.
There's an opportunity on Labor Day to raise awareness that American workers still make things — really cool things — and to inspire a new generation of makers. From wind turbine generators in Illinois to tunnel boring machines in Ohio to supersonic aircraft in Washington state, American workers still power much of the global economy, manufacturing innovative, complex products that demand tremendous skill. Despite the rise of the service economy, making things still creates real value.
Maybe we could celebrate Labor Day by supporting local labor. Rather than a protectionist campaign to Buy American or "Look for the Union" label, this could be as simple as a tax break on Labor Day for American-produced goods. Not only would it offer a boost to local manufacturers, it would raise awareness and inspire people to pursue careers in making.
Recognizing What Matters
People celebrate the American worker in small independent ways throughout the year. From Employee of the Month awards to magazine ratings of the Best Places to Work recognition has long been a valuable motivator for the labor force. But these efforts pale in comparison to the media frenzy that the typical American experiences daily. MTV Awards, ESPYs and Teen Choice Awards make every kid long to be a professional athlete or pop singer; what about the next great construction engineer or automated manufacturing expert? With 25% of American's youth unemployed we run the risk of losing a generation of American workers.
Labor Day presents an opportunity to amplify and aggregate some of these recognitions and keep the dreams of the next generation of American workers alive. What if we used Labor Day to give the finest examples of American ingenuity just a little taste of that spotlight? What if national awards for excellence in engineering, science and mathematics were part of Labor Day celebrations, on the order of the Oscars or (God forbid) American Idol? The attributes that make the American worker great — collaboration, entrepreneurship and hard work — deserve at least as much attention as a strong voice or a "leading man quality."
How remarkable would it be for a 19-year-old to get as excited about being the next great engineer as the next Idol? Maybe Apple could sponsor the celebration, and Fast Company could drop a "Best Of" issue on the same day. Time magazine could complement its Person of the Year issue with a "Worker of the Year" one.
Awareness, Education and Inspiration
People often discover their dream job by accident. Walking by a lab one day, or striking up a conversation on the bus or at a conference, something sparks their interest. Could we use Labor Day to increase those accidents?
At Ziba, we bring high school kids into our office several times a year to introduce them to the product development process. They tear apart cell phones, sneakers and other products from their daily lives. It's incredible to see how surprised they are that people actually make these things, rather than just buying them. Without this kind of exposure, most would never know this work exists.
Maybe it's time we pulled the plug on the relaxation part of Labor Day and amplified the inspiration part. Labor Day could be an opportunity to expose people to new employment opportunities, and reinforce the idea that rapidly changing technology requires continuous re-skilling. Perhaps we celebrate the day by asking businesses to open up their doors and introduce people to new jobs. Who knows?maybe the next Edison, Ford or Jobs just needs the right exposure.
The original Labor Day got a lot right. Its creators understood that for America to achieve its promise of freedom and opportunity through sacrifice and unity, Americans had to work hard, collaborate, learn continually, and of course relax occasionally.
But, like so many other symbols of Brand America, Labor Day lost its meaning. More than anything this is a question of leadership. America has great brand assets, but they need nurturing and development. Doing what's right for the brand is not necessarily popular. Modern American politics has leaders putting more effort into their re-elections than actual leadership. Restoring meaning to Labor Day will not be the most popular thing to do, but it's the right thing to do.
The current American workforce is still the most resilient and resourceful on earth, but there's no guarantee it always will be. In many areas of design and manufacturing we've already lost the edge, and the key to preventing this from spreading is inspiring the American worker. If we can't come together to do that on Labor Day, when will we?
[Top image: Three Flags by Jasper Johns]