How we work will change, but automation doesn’t mean an end to work.

For most Americans, Labor Day means nothing more than the end of summer. Yet it is a national holiday. What should it mean to us, as Americans?

To think about the meaning of this national holiday, it’s worth looking back towards its history, and the history of labor.

The History of Labor Day

Throughout human history, there have only been four economic eras:

  1. the hunter-gatherer era
  2. the agricultural era
  3. the industrial era
  4. and the post-industrial era – which we’re in now.

Each of those transitions has been fraught with disruption and chaos. Changing the way we economically organize ourselves as a society is hard.

Labor Day celebrates the dignity of man at work. It also reminds us of the challenges our ancestors faced to reconcile man’s dignity with the demands of the industrial era. A bit more on the history of Labor Day:

Labor Day, an annual celebration of workers and their achievements, originated during one of American labor history’s most dismal chapters.

In the late 1800s, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, the average American worked 12-hour days and seven-day weeks in order to eke out a basic living. Despite restrictions in some states, children as young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country, earning a fraction of their adult counterparts’ wages….

As manufacturing increasingly supplanted agriculture as the wellspring of American employment, labor unions, which had first appeared in the late 18th century, grew more prominent and vocal. They began organizing strikes and rallies to protest poor conditions and compel employers to renegotiate hours and pay.

Many of these events turned violent during this period, including the infamous Haymarket Riot of 1886, in which several Chicago policemen and workers were killed. Others gave rise to longstanding traditions: On September 5, 1882, 10,000 workers took unpaid time off to march from City Hall to Union Square in New York City, holding the first Labor Day parade in U.S. history.

The idea of a “workingmen’s holiday,” celebrated on the first Monday in September, caught on in other industrial centers across the country, and many states passed legislation recognizing it.

The Future of Labor Day?

Like our ancestors who navigated the Industrial Revolution, we face a disruptive era today.

Yet the problems we face are quite the opposite. Instead of long hours toiling in factories, American workers are dealing with losing those factory jobs to automation.

According to a McKinsey report, by 2030 “about half of all work activities globally have the technical potential to be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.” That means we currently have the technology that could make half of the world’s work obsolete in a little over ten years. What does that mean for the future of work?

There are major changes ahead, and we must prepare our future workforce to prevent major disruptions in the economy. The original celebrators of Labor Day were seeking to remedy the problem of too much work. But some of the challenges our labor force might face in the future look more like long spells of unemployment for large swaths of the population.

Automation doesn’t mean an end to work, though. The economy of the future will be powered by individuals who can think and adapt. It will be bigger than having workers step in to new jobs – there will be entire new industries that we aren’t yet imagining. We need an agile workforce built of lifelong learners to work in those new fields.

The challenges our labor force faces will change with time. Yet one truth remains constant: Meaningful work is one of the key components to lasting happiness in life. Labor Day will always have meaning for us to reflect upon.

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