Labor Day Meditation

Today is Labor Day in the United States. A product of the labor movement, Labor Day was established in 1882 (it became a federal holiday in 1894) as a day to celebrate and acknowledge the achievements of American workers — though you’d hardly know it from the drunken barbeques and (non-drunken) white sales that are our preferred means of celebrating the day today. Achievements like the 8-hour workday, child labor laws, paid vacation, health benefits, workplace safety laws, and the right to collectively bargain with employers (who have always collectively managed).

In the last few decades, a lot of American labor’s accomplishments have been eroded, some as a result of government deregulation, but possibly more as a consequence of changing market relations, the exportation of most production overseas, and a change in attitude by Americans towards organized labor itself. You’d be hard-pressed today to find an American who works 40 hours; most studies peg the average American work-week at around 55 hours. At the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans work two jobs to make ends meet; at the top a new crop of “knowledge workers” puts in longer and longer hours to meet the demands of their jobs. Workers at the most attractive companies crow about the amenities — gyms, gourmet cafeterias, video games, dry cleaners, and so on — that make it almost possible for them not to leave work at all.

With work hours growing longer and productivity skyrocketing (American productivity has more than doubled in the last two decades) you’d think we’d be living pretty high on the metaphorical hog, but the reality is that American wages have been more or less unchanged for decades, and sit at levels far below those of other “developed” nations. Because of rising housing costs, gas prices, and other expenses, even 6-figure professionals are living paycheck-to-paycheck (if they’re not financing their lifestyles with charge cards and high-interest second mortgages).

The upshot is, a lot of Americans (and other folks, though the rest of you have wisely decided to celebrate your labor days in the springtime) are turning every which way, sometimes all at once, tying to keep their heads on straight. The rise over the last couple years of blogs and other websites dedicated to personal productivity, time management, and organization testifies directly to the ever-shrinking gap between the amount of work we have and the number of hours we have to do it in — if we’re not already at negative figures. More and more of our business literature reads like self-help; actually, much of it is self-help, because the biggest challenge facing working people these days are primarily psychological: too much work, too little personal space, too much pressure, too little security, too much going out, not enough coming in.

So, this Labor Day, I wanted to step back and take a look at some of the bigger principles that inform most of the work we do here at lifehack.org, accompanied by the dozens if not hundreds of other writers that make up the “lifehack-oriented” web. Sort of a “50,000 foot” view of things, to borrow from David Allen’s Getting Things Done. These aren’t hacks, per se, but the ends that the tips, advice, and simple hacks we present here are aimed at achieving.

  • Work-Life Balance: Today’s workers struggle to find time for family, personal health and fitness, education, hobbies, and other interests, and employers are by and large unmoved by such concerns. Worrying too much about non-work matters has come to be seen as frivolous, undedicated, even disloyal, a fact illustrated by the results of a recent study that found only a tiny percentage of North Americans (USAnians and Canadians) take even the meager two weeks paid vacation most employers allow. Even sick time goes unused in most instances, as employees fear appearing selfish or uncommitted to their work. The lack of time to physically and mentally recuperate leaves us unhappy, burnt out, and subject to further (and likely greater) illness. Finding a healthy balance between our working selves and our personal selves has become a crucial concern for working people, whatever their field.
  • Goals: Closely related to work-life balance is the need to establish goals for ourselves, both as workers and as individuals. Unfortunately, work itself has become many people’s only goal, with no consideration of what we hope working to make possible for us. Since many paychecks leave so little left over after bills, groceries, clothing, gas, and incidental expenses are taken care of, it can come quite easily to seem like we work to make enough to stay alive so we can keep working. Without clear goals, we are left with no yardstick against which to measure our work, or any other activities. It’s no wonder that the treadmill has come to be the preferred metaphor for describing our lives.
  • Personal Space: Our forebears in the labor movement worked hard to make clear separations between our working lives and our personal lives. Today, working at or from home is one of the fastest-growing trends, and technologies like cell phones, mobile email platforms like Blackberries, email, and cheap broadband have made it possible — and often necessary — for workers to be “always on call”. It is not uncommon for people’s homes to become not a refuge from work but an extension of it. How we erect boundaries and delineate spaces that are “just for me”, and what we do with such spaces when (if?) we construct them, is a central worry for many of us.
  • Personal Development: Most of us would like to be better people. For some that means pursuing an education, for others that means taking part in a religious community, for still others that means being more reliable parents and caretakers. For many of us, though, finding the time, money, and resources to commit to our personal growth is an overwhelming challenge. The rise of “quick-fix” solutions — anti-depressants, cosmetic surgery, diet pills, fast-track educational programs, self-help books, get-rich-quick schemes, one-day workshops, and 1-hour DVDs that promise to tell all the secrets of life — offers us something that feels like personal development without straining our budget or our schedules.
  • The Cure for “Consumeritis”: Under the pressure of increased working hours, weakened family ties, and limited opportunities for growth, we find ourselves investing more and more of our identities in the things we can buy. Karl Marx, who knew a thing or two about working lives, regardless of what you think of his politics, wrote that workers who invest ever-increasing portions of their identities in the things they produce for someone else’s profit turn to consumerism in a vain attempt to recapture the pieces of themselves they’ve lost. It’s not surprising that self-storage is one of the US’s fastest-growing businesses. Many of us have found the rewards of consumption and accumulation to be empty and unfulfilling, and seek ways to divorce ourselves from the never-ending cycle of buying, displaying, and ultimately storing or discarding objects of questionable value, and have begun to seek out ways of minimizing the role of consumption in our lives. Finding alternatives, however, is not always easy.
  • Meaningfulness: We want to be more engaged with our communities and the social problems that face them, we want to develop our talents, and we want to reach out to those around us in more meaningful ways. Yet we find that we are increasingly isolated from our neighbors and fearful of the communities in which our children go to school. We distrust both the businesses we patronize and the government that is supposed to protect us. Although some lucky few manage to build careers around their callings, for most of us — especially those with families to support — this simply is not possible. So how else can we cultivate meaningfulness in our lives, and how can we share it with others?

These are some of the thoughts and questions I’ve come up with on this Labor Day. Not everyone will share these concerns, of course; there are many who have found their own answers to these concerns and are actively pursuing lives that they find rich and fulfilling. Others will have concerns of their own that trump these — just putting food on the table is, alas, a daily struggle in millions of American households, and the failure to do so is felt far more keenly than the lack of personal space or educational opportunities. But I like to think that, in this time of almost obscene plenty, with the total wealth in the US (and the rest of the Western World) growing at rates unheard of in human history, these problems can be overcome and people freed to grow to the limits of their talents and desires. For me, that’s what Labor Day is about, and that’s what lifehack.org and its fellow personal productivity sites are about.

Love this article? Share it with your friends on Facebook