Another Labor Day has come and gone and I find myself once again going, “Meh!” I’ve never liked Labor Day. Like Pavlov’s dog I instinctively react negatively to the mere mention of it. I’ve always thought that it is misplaced on the annual calendar, coming as it does at the end of the summer. Instead of invoking a sense of celebration like other national holidays it seems to be an ill advised attempt to simply throw in one more long weekend before the days grow short and the nights long. I’ve always thought that it might be more appreciated if it were scheduled for March or April when there is often a dearth of downtime for those who work. Since I’ve been ruled by the school calendar for the majority of my life Labor Day signals an end to fun in my mind, not a reason to be happy.
Back when I was a kid the Labor Day holiday was a trigger warning that school was about to start. It was our last big day of freedom before returning to the grind of rising early, stuffing our bare feet into tight shoes and bringing home mountains of homework each evening. It told us that the lazy days of summer were over and it was time to get serious again. I always felt as though I was attending a wake when I gathered with our extended family for a final day at the beach. There would be no time for such frivolities in the coming weeks. We would all be busy with our over filled schedules and it would be many weeks before we got to rest again. Not even the promise of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas assuaged the angst that I always felt on Labor Day.
As an adult I chose teaching as a career and the academic year usually commenced for me during the first weeks of August. Labor Day should have been a welcome respite from the rush of beginning my work anew but somehow it only seemed to interrupt the flow of the routine that I was attempting to establish in my classroom. I always felt that I would have appreciated a day off a bit farther down the line rather than so soon after my students had arrived.
Labor Day also marked a moment when a change of attire was in order. Thankfully the world of fashion is a bit less dictatorial than it used to be but there was a time when the arrival of Labor Day meant that white slacks and dresses had to be stored away with other summer gear. Sandals and shorts were frowned upon unless they were worn only inside the home. For those of us living in the hot humid conditions of the south the traditional fall fashions that debuted after the working man’s holiday were far too dark and heavy. Luckily we managed to come to our senses and now nobody seems to notice if we are still sporting our flip flops and capris deep into December. Today even school bands often have two sets of uniforms that include warm weather styles along with the more traditional looks.
For so long Jerry Lewis was to Labor Day as Santa Claus was to Christmas. His marathon for Muscular Dystrophy was bigger than the blitz of football games that now dominate the weekend. I never failed to get emotionally involved with the men, women and children struck down by that terrible disease and I opened my pocket to the kids who came to my door seeking donations as well as the firefighters who held out their boots at traffic lights. I was mesmerized by the tote board that registered ever higher donations as the hours wore on and Jerry Lewis appeared as though he was about to collapse from fatigue. The whole country was focused on securing a cure for Jerry’s Kids and we all hoped and prayed that it would be found in our lifetime. Eventually Jerry got old, the miracles that we expected didn’t happen and we all seemed to lose interest in spending hours watching celebrities doing little more than talk. Slowly but surely the annual program faded into nothing more than a memory, replaced by wall to wall football games and marathons of popular television series.
We definitely need to honor our working men and women but somehow the intent of the Labor Day holiday seems to have become lost in translation. It is just another way to have a long weekend filled with exciting sales on everything from washing machines to cars. There is something a bit empty about it these days. There are no special events that are designed to showcase the contributions of the men and women who leave their homes each morning to fuel the engine of our economy. We rarely stop to consider the many facets of work that keep most of us enjoying fairly comfortable lives. In our country we have rarely had to face a situation in which things fall completely apart because the jobs or the people who do them are gone. We tend not to take much note of places in the world where a sense of security has been shattered because few are able to find employment.
We often grumble when we are involved in the daily grind of work but deep in our hearts we understand that the alternative of being without a means of supporting ourselves and our families is frightening. Sadly many of the traditional sources of work are going the way of the dinosaurs. As I have traveled around the country I have noticed so many manufacturing plants that are shuttered and empty. In my own hometown there are people who worked for the oil industry who have been unemployed for well over a year. They seek jobs but are rebuffed at every turn. Coal miners and steel workers are becoming forgotten souls in the modern economy. Even college graduates are finding it difficult to move into professions in which they once might have been heavily recruited. They find themselves settling for work unrelated to their majors that pay barely enough to get by much less reduce the debt of their student loans. These are frightening and confusing times for many who want to be part of the workforce but can’t seem to find a niche.
I worked quite hard for a very long time and earned every hour of my retirement but I understand that my own security in the coming years depends heavily on the success of the young. If they can’t find decent work the whole system begins to collapse and we all go down with them. As independent as each of us may sometimes feel the truth is that we are all in this world together. What happens to one affects another.
The numbers of elk in Yellowstone National Park have been greatly reduced all because someone introduced lake trout into the spawning ground of a smaller type of fish. The more aggressive lake trout eat their mild mannered neighbors at a rate so alarming that the little ones have almost become extinct inside the lake. The bears who used to eat the tiny fish after hibernating each year have had to satisfy their dietary needs with baby elk now that their usual source of protein is no longer as available. Thus the herds of elk are greatly diminished which has a domino effect on other aspects of nature. Much like the symbiosis in nature, there is also a chain of events that occur whenever people lose their livelihood.
I’d love to see us take the Labor Day holiday more seriously. We all need to know more about the history of work in our country and the world. We need to be truthfully informed about employment trends. Our children require good information to be able to make decisions about their futures. If we did Labor Day right it might become an educational holiday that allows us to gain more understanding of how things really are in different parts of our country and the world. I suspect that ignorance of reality is rather dangerous in the modern era and it is far too rampant. Lest we one day awake to find ourselves scrambling for food in empty grocery stores like the people of Venezuela it’s time that we learned more about our own workforce so that we might continue to provide jobs for everyone who needs one. We all depend on filling our economy with worker bees each day. Maybe it’s time that we take a second look at Labor Day. It just may be the most important commemoration that we have.