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Our Views: It's autumn for old jobs

Americans still work hard, sometimes with less to show for it, in a changing work world

POSTED: August 31, 2014 12:30 a.m.

Labor Day weekend provides us  an annual three-day break before summer fades into fall. School and football are back, and though it’s still plenty hot, the days are growing shorter and the leaves are crisping up for seasonal changes to come.

The holiday also is when we review the state of work in our society, both to celebrate the jobs we have and, in some cases, lament those that have passed into frozen oblivion from their own autumnal equinox.

Work today scarcely resembles the jobs our parents and grandparents went off to. Back then, dad would trudge off to the factory or the office with his lunch bucket or briefcase in hand, put in his eight hours and slide down the dinosaur’s neck, a la Fred Flintstone, when the whistle blew. But it’s no longer a 5 o’clock world, and hasn’t been for some time.

Today, those fortunate to have full-time work often put in much longer days that stretch into the night. Many toil at home via remote computer hookups, Skype serving as their conference rooms and Facebook as the water cooler. Others work via contract labor, temporary positions without health insurance or benefits. And some plug away at a handful of part-time jobs for small salaries they try to cull into a livable wage.

Old-style manufacturing and service jobs have given way to a new lexicon of specialty roles that don’t fit into jump-rope rhymes the way  “butcher, baker and candlestick maker” once did. For some, the question, “What do you do for a living?” doesn’t come with an easy one-word answer.

Numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics bear this out. From January 2011 through December 2013, 4.3 million workers in the U.S. were displaced from jobs they held for at least three years. The previous two-year period saw 6.1 million workers face the same fate, meaning more than 10 million Americans have been bounced from jobs in the last five years. Another 5.2 million people lost jobs they held for fewer than three years.

The reasons vary: a business closed or relocated, a position was eliminated or tasks once performed just went away. Some 18 percent of lost jobs were in manufacturing, an industry once the backbone of U.S. employment. But automation and overseas outsourcing now mean fewer than 10 percent of workers make things in the U.S. Most workers now bang a keyboard or lift a tray instead of a hammer, and paper hats are more common than hard hats.

In generations past, a worker might change jobs three or four times over a lifetime. Now younger workers go through that many name-tags in a few years. Some who can’t find a regular workplace give up and go the part-time route, choking their mailboxes with a pile of W-2 tax forms the following year.

The good news is that 61 percent of long-tenured displaced workers found new jobs. The bad news is many of those jobs were for lesser pay and not always a fit with the worker’s particular job skills. Only about half found jobs that matched their previous positions. Many went from lucrative careers to pouring coffee or stocking store shelves.

And Americans still work harder and longer. A Gallup poll released Friday shows full-time workers in the U.S. labor an average of 47 hours, nearly another full day each week. Just 42 percent of full-timers work 40 hours a week, while 39 percent say they work at least 50 hours and 18 percent toil for 60 hours or more before taking a day off.

Yet despite this, our work-centric view has changed somewhat with each new generation. No longer does everyone define themselves by what they do for a paycheck, especially if that job-based identity was pulled out from under them. Many now see work as a means to an end, not the sole focus of their existence. Does that make them happier or just poorer? Can they be both?

In a way, this new culture of work changes the way we look at Labor Day. What once was, and still is for many, a welcome Monday without traffic, deadlines and tasks to perform is to others just ... Monday. Either they are still working at businesses that remain open, or they have nowhere to go Tuesday, making a day without labor their status quo.

Companies are running leaner payrolls to stay profitable and viable, but without such moves, the jobs that remain could be in jeopardy. The same is true for the public sector, where reduced tax revenues have sliced into government staffing.

Working harder to earn more, or getting by with less for more free time. Fewer commutes, but sometimes fewer benefits. Aching backs and black lung disease replaced by carpal tunnel and too much sitting. Like a days’ work itself, the job picture is a trade-off of pluses and minuses. It’s a new world, but is it a better one? It’s hard to say.

The free market economy is a force unto itself beyond the control of any cabal of business leaders, politicians or economists. Technology, societal changes and consumer habits cause it to ebb and flow in directions impossible to sway, or to predict. All we can do is ride along on this current, work hard for whatever employer will have us, and count ourselves lucky every payday.

This Labor Day, if you have a job to go to, or to take holiday from, be thankful. Many do not and would gladly trade places, despite indignities the rest of us face on the clock.

And those who remain unemployed, underemployed or frustrated with a job market that isn’t working for them can only take solace in the fact they are not alone.



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