This Labor Day finds the American workplace as a picture in contrasts — as employment, wages and other signs point to a strengthening economy, anxieties exist over automation, globalization and a disconnect in the historic relationship between employers and employees. None of this is particularly new; these trends have been around for years. But the uncertainties are forcing many Americans to redefine their place and goals in life as careers become more transactional and as the market continually changes the skill sets required to succeed.
In the big picture, America's recovery is holding firm, and the growth in housing, wages and other areas seems sustainable. The red-hot stock market may be due for a pullback soon, but with U.S. corporate earnings strong and consumers still confident, it would take an unforeseen crisis to sidetrack the momentum now. Even the threat of a government shutdown over the federal debt seems more like political bluster than reality. After the heavy scars of the recession, Americans seem grateful for a break. There is a greater sense of possibility.
Yet millions of Americans are still clawing back from the losses of the past decade, and cities and the job market have forever changed. Robots and innovation have eliminated factory jobs, and the manufacturing belt struggles to compete against lower-wage foreign workers. Retirements by aging baby boomers have created some openings on the corporate ladder for younger employees and helped create the biggest new job market — for health care aides. But the generational shift has also changed the dynamics and culture of the workforce, as employers outsource more tasks and as younger workers seek a better work-life balance.
The remedies are the same ones talked about for years — new job training programs, expanded access to business capital and changes to the tax code to spur entrepreneurial activity. Cities and states are getting into the action, creating "incubators" to clump like-minded industries together to create local hubs of research and production. The Trump administration threatens to stall the effort with proposed cuts to the Labor Department and job-training programs. The business community in many areas has responded by filling the gap with new internships and mentoring programs.
It's no wonder workers feel whipsawed by the impacts of the recession and the threat of competition from global trade. A Pew Research Center study last year noted "tectonic changes" reshaping the U.S. workplace. It found that Americans had come to the conclusion they needed a "lifetime commitment" to job retraining. And despite all the challenges that global markets and technology posed for U.S. workers, they were a net positive overall. That's hardly an endorsement of protectionism.
Pew also found that demands for new skill sets may work to the benefit of women, who account for most jobs where analytical skills are important. That could be a great leveler in shrinking the gender pay gap. For every threat the new economic order poses, it also has the prospect of bringing positive social change to the United States and the global order.
Labor Day has become a day for many Americans to enjoy a long weekend, bid farewell to summer, shop for deals on mattresses or cars or to prepare for fall. It is a holiday many use to get away from work, not to think about where their careers are going. But it's important today to honor the contribution workers make by getting up and out the door every day. It helps reaffirm the sense of responsibility that built this country.