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The Meaning of Labor Day // Reflections as We Prepare to Leave the Labor Market

happy labor day, friends in the usa and canada. happy monday to everyone else!

just as we did for u.s. independence day, we want to take a moment to reflect on what the labor day holiday means, especially for those of us planning to leave the labor market as soon as we can!

if you’d like more background on the origins of the labor movement, which brought us labor day, and the genesis of the holiday itself, check out these great sources:

during the early industrial revolution, before the labor movement began, it was normal for people to work six days a week, and 80- to 100-hour workweeks were common. just sit with that for a moment. for those of us who can’t wait to escape work, we may work a lot, but very few of us work 100 hours a week these days, even including all of the time spent checking work email in the evenings and on weekends. during this period in history, virtually all work was grueling manual labor, and “weekends” weren’t even a thing. the labor movement formed to fight for better working conditions and fair pay.

the first labor day holiday was held in the u.s. in the 1880s, and gradually became a national holiday in celebration of workers. in the years that followed, the labor movement successfully fought to change the work culture across the country, moving away from employers exploiting employees every way they could, into a culture in which it’s generally accepted that workers are due fair treatment, fair pay, safe working conditions and reasonable hours. without the labor movement, we literally would not have weekends, not to mention a standard 40-hour workweek, employer-provided health insurance, minimum wage, or a host of other things our society now takes for granted.

looking back on history, and the horrible conditions that necessitated organized labor just to fight for the most basic human rights at work, we can’t help but feel a little spoiled that the work we’re eager to run away from is vastly different from that factory and farm work that workers in those days did. we may work a lot, but it’s nowhere near 100 hours a week, or even 80, except in the rarest of circumstances. our “exhausting” work involves travel and writing, while theirs involved heavy lifting or extremely tedious work, breathing in toxic fumes, and potentially losing life and limb. but mostly, we just feel lucky to be alive at this time in history, when there has been so much forward progress in how we think about and define “work.”

before the industrial revolution, the work most people did was subsistence work: farming, building your own home, making your own clothes. most people provided for themselves, and bought very little. if you were especially good at your subsistence tasks, you could have more free time during the day, though the work in certain seasons was unavoidably time-consuming. then, during the industrial revolution, more people moved to the cities and took factory jobs with inhumane conditions, resetting our national expectation of what work entailed. gradually, after world war II, we transitioned into a more white collar economy, creating jobs with novel features like a fixed salary instead of an hourly wage, and paid vacation time. at no time during our history, prior to the new deal, was “retirement” really a thing. sometimes people had to stop working because of illness or injury, but it was not an accepted notion that at some point you could stop working and live a life of leisure.

most of us now working toward early retirement have benefited from this evolution in work and life expectations, often without realizing it. if we’d been born only 100 years earlier, “retirement” wouldn’t yet be an accepted concept, and the jobs available to us would be far less likely to pay enough to save quickly for early retirement. women wouldn’t yet be going to college in any notable numbers, meaning that having a dual income household would be vanishingly rare.

all of this makes us wonder what the future holds. will our economy keep moving in a forward direction, and get to a point where everyone can retire early, or at least figure out some sort of semi-retirement or location-independent situation? the trend in recent years has been for work to intrude more and more into our personal lives, and to get more and more fast-paced. will that level out at some point, or even recede? will more people have early retirement in reach, not just the lucky few of us whose life circumstances lined up to let us go to college, get overpaying jobs, and not get sidetracked by major life emergencies?

what does labor day mean to you? what about this era in history makes you feel grateful? or maybe you’re just grateful for the day off, and that’s great too!

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22 replies »

  1. I appreciate the smoothly-told history of labor. I typically think of how lucky I am to currently be working about 40 hours as opposed to 60 or 70 that others work now. I rarely think of it in historical terms, so thank you!

    I also need to read more of your blog to see what you want to do in your early retirement, what you do now, etc. Over the past few years, I’ve often thought “I want to retire,” and I’m learning more and more that I don’t want to retire–live a life of leisure, which is just one definition I’m sure. I want to work differently than I have in the past. I’m grateful for that insight today!

    • Glad you enjoyed the little history. :-) Check out our “Start Here” page in the top nav bar for lots of info on what we do now, what we plan to do, and how we’re working to reach our early retirement goals. Happy Labor Day!

  2. I think we’re in a really interesting point in “late stage capitalism.” I’m not sure our current system is indefinitely tenable, especially as fewer workers are needed as more jobs are automated and we start to hit energy constraints before hitting labor constraints and wealth becomes immensely concentrated in tiny hubs. In any case, I am certainly glad to be alive in the now rather than the before (for many reasons, including the easier work weeks).

    Yay, labor!

    • We agree with you — our current system can’t go on forever. But delving into the history of today definitely made us appreciate being alive now, instead of in the very recent past. Much has changed — for the better!

  3. I’m SO glad we’re not in that work schedule and dealing with those issues. Thanks for the review of the origin of Labor Day, interesting read!

    For me, Labor Day means the summers over. I find it’s a nice time to look back and reflect before looking forward to the upcoming holiday season!

    • So true — Labor Day marks the end of summer, even though we technically have a few more weeks, and kids went back to school weeks ago. And geez — it’s way too early to talk holidays! We’re those Scrooges who walk into a store and say, “What?! Christmas music in October?!?!?!” ;-)

  4. Fantastic overview of the history of Labor Day. It’s feasible to overlook the origins and those things we tend to unfortunately take for granted from time to time. It’s incredible to believe that 100 years ago retirement wasn’t even a concept. The evolution of the work place and work force has truly created more advantages for us that are alive today. Thank you for sharing!

  5. I very much enjoyed this post while drinking tea this evening, after working. I must say, I was extra irritated to be working on such a day! As you said in the post though, “work” to us now is so different. Working for the govt, I’m strongly discouraged from going over my 40 hours (although I inevitably do). Many of my coworkers don’t work a minute over 40 hours though – it’s an interesting culture to be around. When I start feeling overworked, I think of my mother (a top exec) who seems to work 60-70 hours a week. I can’t even imagine 100!

    My takeaway is that although I report to a job 40 hours a week, I spend another 40 every week “working” for myself – gardening, making household items, cooking, even blogging. I know you all probably feel the same! Even hobbies sometimes can feel like “work” – it’s hard work hiking and mountain climbing!

    The main difference to me is the satisfaction I feel after my own work vs my job. That’s what I’m celebrating today :)

    • Working on a holiday — boo!! I think the way you approach work is more like “traditional” employment — you spend a certain amount of time earning your paycheck, but then also work hard on your own projects aimed at making yourself self-sufficient. The idea of making nothing and buying everything is not traditional in the least, and I love that you’re so focused on getting back to those roots we’ve lost in laboring for ourselves, not always for “the man.” As for hiking and mountain climbing — we WISH we had time for those things now. We carved out a few hours this weekend to go for a little 5-mile hike, and while it was nice, it was also a reminder of how little time we truly have control over right now. Can’t wait to get to that freedom day, when we can start allocating our time how WE want to! Hope you have a great week! :-)

  6. Happy Labor Day to you too. If all goes well, this may be my last one as an employee! :)

    I see the trend over the last 20 years with salary and management employees, to be connected to work, or working for much more than the 40 hours we are paid. The invention of pagers, cell phones, the internet, and email have changed work for many of us today.

    My prediction is that in the next couple of decades we will see a movement back to an unconnected life.

    • Wonderful to say, too, I’d imagine! We still have two more Labor Days to go after this year. Thanks for that slideshare! Good to know that leisure was such a virtue to the ancient Greeks!

  7. Hey ONL! I’ll be honest, Labor Day to me is just another day off – I don’t think much about the meaning behind the holiday. I do, however, consider it to be the symbolic separation between summer and the fall – football starts, temperatures finally begin getting cooler. Back when I lived in Virginia in high school, our first day of school was the day after Labor Day. It’s like “cresting the ridge” between your typical summer lifestyle and “real life”.

    And did I mention football season?