Happy Belated Labor Day

I have been meaning to comment on labor day, this past Monday all week.

There is some kind of irony in Bucknell’s lack of observance of labor day.  Do we not think learning and teaching are “work”?  Of course some classes of employees are off, but not students nor faculty.  I am not whining about wanting a day off, just wondering what the institution is say9ing, or not, in its scheduling choices.

Bucknell aside, what are they key “issues” of the day, as C. Wright Mills would have us describe them?  What is the state of working for a living in the ol’ US of A?

The NY Times provided two interesting views on labor on the day in question.  First, Robert Reich, professor (but Micheal Reagan thinks this is a disqualification to speak on matters of bread and butter), former Labor Secretary under Clinton, author, and very funny short man (one of his book titles was Let Me Be Short) tackles the two big issues of the day: the stagnant economy and rising inequality.

Reich provides an interesting set of graphs to accompany his points. (Click to enlarge).  First, the evidence: productivity is up, incomes are flt, and the wealthiest are wealthier at a faster rate than everyone else.  Whether this is a problem or not can be divided into two pieces.  First- are there negative effects to rising inequality?  Second- can rising inequality understood not as a problem, but as the outcome of a more virtuous process?  In this case, the process would be a well-functioning economy that allows individuals to find their own optimal point of rewards in the labor market relative to what they put into it (effort, capital).  In other words, a free market will produce inequality as a result of liberating the engines of wealth-seeking.

I’ll leave it to a reader to determine whether or not the inequality is a problem.  The data are clear and it should be beyond debate that there is increasing inequality.  His chart sums up the explanation of why.  Wages stagnated starting around 1980, but the great “middle class” of America kept spending thereby creating enough demand to sustain economic growth for the producers of America (and the world).  How did they do it?  First,WOMEN.  The women moved into the workforce in massive numbers.  Whether it was to express their autonomy, enact a feminist vision of gender-equality, or to make the ends meet, the raw fact is they entered the economy.  AS historians and sociologists have pointed out, this was really a re-entry into labor as the myth of the domestic, lesiure-oriented housewife was a historical anomaly.  From hunter-gatherers to pioneer homesteads to early industrial work in homes, women did much, if not most, work.

Second, taking on debt.  Lots of it.  At some point in the recent past, the average US household savings rate was negative.  Negative! I remember when I heard this , it was like a punch to the stomach.  You can’t sustain that.   Blind faith in rising house prices and the slick sales pitches of elements of the mortgage industry played a big part in the bloating of debt.  Anyway, that brings our story quite nicely up to the stories of the housing bubble, the role of Wall street in the bubble, and then AIG and the other Wall Street players at the center of the “great recession.”

The other article, by Harvard Business school professors (woo hoo! Go Management Scholar), Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, shifts our focus from the buig picture to the small details of everyday work.  At their conclusion, they offer this seemingly unobjectionable thought: “Work should ennoble, not kill, the human spirit.”  This reminds me of another irony of labor day- shouldn’t we work on labor day?  My grade school had school on MLK day so we could learn about him and the history of civil rights in our country.  Anyway, digressions aside, what Amabile and Kramer found is disheartening:  most professionals are disengaged, frustrated, and disatsified with work.

They are unhappy.

Using a HUGE amount of data (12,000 diary entries form 238 “professional” employees), they found that 33% were unhappy.  What would make them happier?  Is it some sort of Enron-like PRC with huge bonuses attached to the best reviewed?  No.  Is it little rewards and trophies?  No.  Is it more pay overall? No.  Is it getting to lord over a prized working spot over co-workers?  No.  What is most motivating is making progress on meaningful work.  So, Edward Freeman’s “responsibility hypothesis”– that people innately want to take responsibility for their work, finds some empirical evidence.

Meanwhile, I am reminded of a clip from a food documentary I saw at our campus theatre the other day: Fresh.  Chicken Farmers talk about how it is so hard to find people to “process” chickens (butcher) that they use work crews form a local prison to do it.

Can manual labor be as meaningful as the professionals in Amabile and Krmaer’s study long for?  Can butchering chickens be experienced as meaningful work?  Or would simply paying more (and thereby reversing a little the flow of wealth Reich talks about) do more good?

Do my students feel their academic assignments are meaningful work?  Do I, as a professor-manager, provide the tools to enable them to be motivated by progress on meaningful work?

About Jordi

I am an assistant professor in the Management School at Bucknell University. I specialize in organization theory, social networks, and studying the network society. I have three children, including twins. They love bouncing on the couch, legos, music, and my waffles. My wife teaches English at the same university. I am interested in most things, but these days, networks, social entrepreneurs, the environment, innovation, and virtual worlds. Finding Hidden Abodes and Shaking Iron Cages since 1972
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5 Responses to Happy Belated Labor Day

  1. vs says:

    I think it is a real privilege to consider the question of working on a holiday celebrating work. IMHO, most people who want to and need to work would do so given the choice on Monday. The Chairman of my company works most holidays because he likes what he does. Me, I spent the day choosing not to think my work or any others.

    Is the hollowing out of Middle America a byproduct of an economy in transition? If that’s what we conclude in the future, I’m not sure it will matter how much more people are paid or how meaningful the work was. Globalization and the swift hand of competition are brutal.

    Very few societies still exist without a wealthy class. They make the campus grass so green. Unlike most Americans, however, I don’t believe I will ever join the economic elite, but I still have faith in our society to find a more equitable distribution of wealth as well as getting more people fantastic work. I guess that’s the point of holidays.

  2. Marion von Beck says:

    Most heartily agree that making progress on meaningful work is the most important, as long as one is making a living. As wages lower, the value of meaningful declines.
    Except, there are exceptions. The poorly paid serving staff here seem very motivated by the value of their work, and the turnover rate is very low while the smile rate is high.


  3. mcardinute says:

    I agree with Reich’s idea that in today’s society you get out what you put in. I don’t think the idea of inequality is a problem to a certain extent. Its a free market; therefore, if an individual chooses not to work versus an individual that is hungry and wants to make things happen, the person who is busting their tail should not be penalized. Certainly others may argue that people are less fortunate and have less opportunities, (which i completely understand) but those individuals should want it even more to prove to themselves and others that it will take more to hold them back. I can relate to this personally, I do not come from the wealthiest of the wealthiest families, and did not have all the tools to guide me in the right direction, I had to figure it out myself.

  4. awhigbee says:

    I think there is some irony in Bucknell (specifically) not observing Labor Day. There are offices on campus (such as Payroll and Registrar) who were closed on this Labor Day because they were not Bucknell students/faculty. To me that means, are we that different? It can go two ways; is the work that the Bucknell faculty/students are doing SO important a day off would throw it completely out of proportion? Another way it could go being, are we not human enough, having sacrificed most of out autonomy to attend this university, to get this day off? It is certainly a weird question, however I believe the answer lies in the extreme prejudices of the University in regard to students consuming alcohol on a three day weeked. They probably think someone will die so they just cancel the whole thing altogether.

  5. Cander says:

    As far as my insight to work I cannot speak for others, but I would not be studying what I am unless I found it meaningful and interesting. Especially now that I am coming across organizational/management strategies and theories and can compare it to my experiences in engineering project management; it is an interesting cross-reference.

    I think Michael Reagan’s point could be summed up in his one sentence with all caps. He wouldn’t be against an academic if he could somehow view them as not-liberal. Everything else seemed like filler material. His argument about wanting someone with private experience can be a valid one; it just didn’t need to be a right wing-left wing battle.

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