Three Reasons Why Labor Day Matters To You

Today, September 2nd, Americans celebrate Labor Day, as they have every year since 1887. This year, they would do well to spend some time thinking about the future of work, and how to prepare themselves to survive and thrive in it. The world of work is changing fast, in ways that will be extremely challenging to many of us.

There are three particularly important issues worth thinking about today.

First, there is a great mismatch between the skills many of us have and the skills required for the sorts of jobs that are coming to dominate the world of work. As I wrote in a special report for The Economist, now available here as an ebook, “The Future of Jobs”, this is creating a two-tier jobs market, in which those who have the right skills can earn more than was ever possible before, whilst those without those skills face the prospect of falling real wages as international competition and technological innovation make the skills they do have ever less valuable.You can see how technology is providing both opportunity and threat by looking at the rapid emergence of global online employment exchanges such as ODesk and Elance, which I wrote about here in The Economist.

The one piece of good news is that it has never been easier to upgrade your skills, thanks to the rapid growth of businesses providing free high quality courses via the internet, known as MOOCs (massive open online courses). You can read an article I wrote in The Economist about the MOOCs here.

Second, trade unionism is showing signs of life. Beneath the headlines about the long-term decline of trade unions, there are two noteworthy signs of life in the labor movement that brought Labor Day into existence. The more positive is the rise of the Freelancers Union, which has seen its membership soar because it focuses on providing its workers with services they need – such as affordable health care – while avoiding traditional union activities such as strikes.

I recently interviewed Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, at the Nasdaq Marketsite for Newswire.FM. (You can watch a key excerpt from the interview below.)

Unions have always been about people coming together to solve their problems, Horowitz says, and the freelancers union was the result of freelancers coming together to solve problems that are unique to their way of working, which tends to be with lots of different employers and often involves periods of intense activity and other periods when there is little income coming in. She sees this as a ‘new mutualism’ that is a part of the broader ‘sharing economy’ or ‘peer economy’ more typically associated with firms such as Airbnb and RelayRides. The Freelancers Union set about solving the problem of many freelancers lacking health insurance by creating its own insurance company, which last year, its fifth, generated revenues of over $100m. What it was able to do was “aggregate freelancers’ economic power and really start to put it right to their immediate needs”, Horowitz told me.

The less uplifting revival if unionism can be seen in the recent outbreak of strikes by workers at fast food joints around the country. In the past, nobody planned to stay in their McJob long enough to think it worth bothering to unionise. That this is no longer the case is chilling evidence of how tough things are getting at the bottom of the jobs market, where wages have been falling steadily in real terms for over ten years.

Third, more than ever, we need work that helps each of us fulfill our human potential. One thing the millennial generation seems to understand better than the rest of us is the need for work to serve our sense of purpose and to be in balance with all the other things that make life fulfilling. A recent survey by Gallup found that 70% of American workers either hate their job or feel completely disengaged from it.

So while there is a desperate need to create more jobs, it is also important that we figure out how to create better jobs that truly engage workers in what they do. How to do this will be the topic of a conference in New York on September 18th that I am co-chairing with my Economist colleague Adrian Wooldridge. You can find out here about this event, which is bringing together some of the world’s top thinkers on the future of work.

President Teddy Roosevelt observed on Labor Day 1903 that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” To me, it is unacceptable that this prize that still remains beyond the reach of most people.

What do you think?

Posted by:Matthew BishopMatthew Bishop
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