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:
- U.S. Department of Labor’s History of Labor Day
- U.S. Department of Labor Historian on the History of Labor Day
- The Atlantic: Where the Five Day Workweek Came From
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!