Why you should care

Working a 40-hour week for 40 years means you’ll spend about 80,000 hours of your life at work. Best make it count. 

A friend has posted a sort of flyer on Facebook:

“THIS LONG HOLIDAY WEEKEND HAS BEEN BROUGHT TO YOU BY THE BLOOD, SWEAT, AND TEARS OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT.”

We’d do well to remember it, especially in 2015.

We’ve been hearing about labor’s diminishing power for quite some time, of course, but only this year did we see recent history grounded in a doorstopper of a book by one Thomas Piketty. In case you didn’t read it — and let’s face it, most of us did not — the Frenchman’s theory turned the dismal science darker. Piketty seemed to predict ever-diminishing returns to labor and ever-increasing concentration of wealth.

More bad news for labor: We saw a lot of buzz around the term “precariat” and mourned Bangladeshi garment workers, while taking only baby steps to avoid another disastrous collapse. The Supreme Court took a big swipe at public unions and seems keen on gutting their infrastructure.

There’s good news, too. We’ve witnessed a possible renaissance in unions, and unlikely successes by the most marginal of laborers, like migrant workers. Some of them have convinced Wal-Mart and the like to get onboard with fair-labor laws. A populist resurgence on both sides of the aisle might get workers some more attention.

Ever since Marx, we’ve tended to think about work in terms of power and capital and, well, misery and exploitation. Those are important terms. But what often gets lost in these analyses is this: Work can ennoble us. At its best, work gives us a sense of purpose, lets us engage in our communities and world and be part of something much greater than ourselves.

I think about my mom, 71 years old and still practicing pediatrics, even though getting up in the middle of the night to attend deliveries gets harder every year. She plans to keep at it as long as she can: It keeps her sharp and purposeful, and it’s fun besides.

That ennobling power of work isn’t limited to doctors — or, for that matter, professionals, entrepreneurs, artists or white-collar types. In fact, I know many a miserable lawyer, and more than a few happy salesclerks and stay-at-home parents.

What makes us happy at work — assuming we’re receiving a living wage and benefits — is whether we match our jobs well, and whether we feel respected and engaged, like we’re contributing meaningfully. I like to think that most everyone, from Piketty to, say, Scott Walker, would agree.

So this Labor Day, let us at OZY wish you all a happy workweek — and many, many more happy workweeks to come.

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