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Labor Daze

Back to work has a whole new meaning in 21st century America

School’s back in session, Labor Day’s upon us, and we’re up for new challenges.
    But just how much do we have to give?
    I’m already leaning in, as Sheryl Sandberg advises. At Bay Weekly, it’s shoulder to the wheel and nose to the grindstone. My job doesn’t leave me much time to lollygag on Facebook, where Sandberg made her mark and millions.
    I know what billionaire newsman and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is talking about in urging us to hold it in. Reporters and editors often ignore the advice of urologists, subjugating their bladders to deadline.
    Yet I know I’m not working nearly hard enough.
    It’s in the blood. My share of America’s Puritan work ethic lashes me on. Good works may not be rewarded by salvation, but don’t try to get there without hard work.
    And it’s coming at me from both directions. Starvation was the lash driving my Italian mother’s immigrant work ethic. New generations of immigrants — from Korean dry cleaners and Vietnamese manicurists to the second-generation Indian kids who study six hours a day to win the spelling bees — keep reminding me that work is the currency of success.
    Yet on the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Justice, I’m wondering if the American work ethic just might be out of whack.
    Work as hard as you can, and for what?
    To change the world, as Facebook and Bloomberg have done?
    Rewards that big might make it worthwhile to give up lunch breaks and water-cooler chats, playtime with the kids and romps with the dog, porch sitting and runs in the woods, washing the dishes, cutting the lawn and the thousand sacred, mundane routines of ordinary life. Even peeing.
    Bloomberg and Sandberg and Bezos are way out in front of most of us. With all the domestic help they can afford, they can live like angels, free of earthly chores as they achieve divinity.
    The rest of us are stuck with ordinary life. Perhaps we even enjoy its demands. Especially when we’ve got weekends to spend being just folks.
    America’s labor unions call themselves the folks who brought you the weekend. Weekends were a big deal. Believe it or not, they hadn’t been invented until Labor Unions won working people high enough wages and short enough work-weeks that leisure time became an affordable part of middle-class life.
    On weekends, working people became family people, car enthusiasts, shoppers and suburbanites. With so much time on their hands, they might work second jobs or go sailing or devote themselves to passionate hobbies that make them somebody special.
    Labor unions reached their peak of power mid-last century. They’re out of fashion now, and blamed for bringing down the domestic economy with extravagant demands that created a society of people who worked and lived.
    With Labor Day, summer’s illusion of freedom shrinks to weekend size. I don’t mind that, except for worrying that the weekend oasis is doomed by America’s Brave New World 21st century economy.
    On the wages of a service economy, the weekend is a luxury. Double wage earners and second jobs barely keep above water families that expected to be middle class.
    Between 1979 and 2007, The Washington Post reported on the anniversary of the March, “63 percent of total income growth went to the top 10 percent of households.”
    Almost 10 percent of white households live below the poverty line; over a quarter of black households are poor.
    News like that is what I get for reading my morning paper.
    In Bay Weekly, you look for news of how people thrive. This week, as usual, you’ll find sustainable success stories in our Labor Day feature on 10 serial careerists who keep turning new chapters for the love of what they do.
    Great stories like theirs are all the more reason to keep thinking about how to get back to labor days that give all our lives meaning — and weekends.

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]