One question we seem to pass by in life is very basic: for what do we labor? We put in our time at work, earn money to support our families and ourselves, serve fellow employees and customers, and advance in pay and position. At our best, we think, we innovate, we sell, we add value, and we savor results.
Yet the question looms in our lives: for what do we labor? The question may surface when we further our own education, when we lose our jobs, when someone is promoted over us for a position we wanted, or when we go through illness or loss. We ask the question differently at first: is all of this work really worth it? Then we begin thinking about “worth” and whether the way we’ve been measuring the “worth” of work is best.
Yet we still haven’t grappled with the more fundamental question: for what do we labor? On Labor Day, we celebrate the value of work and effort, and we’re thankful for the availability of a job. This holiday can open the door for us for deeper reflection on the meaning and the ethics of work. After all, the holiday was created to celebrate the contributions of laborers on farms, in manufacturing plants, and working manually in small businesses.
Over the years, such workers might have answered the fundamental question by saying, “We work for the boss man. He uses us to make money.” In other words: we’re tools with hands. I recall the Peoria Art Guild’s excellent exhibit featuring original artwork from leading American artists in Hiram Walker’s post-World War II advertising campaign. When showing workers laboring away, some didn’t have faces and those who did never faced the audience. The managers, however, did have clear facial features and penetrating eyes watching the workers at work. Laborers were tools—and, in some ways, they still are today.
More people than ever are in service businesses in the early 21st century. These businesses include low-wage entry positions in retailing, as well as high-end work in technology and national and global businesses. People tend not to focus on the boss man or woman. Instead, they’re fixated on self. So they answer the fundamental question by saying (at least deep within), “We work for ourselves. We use the business to make money.” Some would say they use the business to make an impact or to win in the game of competition. Still, the focus is on how they can use their own abilities to become valuable to the company.
One troubling factor in 21st century labor is that people are focused on what they can get out of the employer so they can waste time in passive ways like watching television, playing video games, shopping simply to pass the hours, or engaging in indoor and outdoor activities just to escape from making a difference in life. Maybe that’s the ultimate avoidance of the deep question. Instead of being contributors in our work for an employer and our life in a community, we’re consumers. The world owes us goods, services, entertainment, and excitement, and we passively react to and receive what others have in store (or in stores) for us.
Whether one is a laborer or a manager, the larger question remains unanswered: for what do we labor? Notice that, often, the question is focused on self in reaction to the workplace rather than an inner sense of mission, values, and ethics. As noble as it may sound, caring for self and family are really secondary issues. Certainly, we want to find satisfaction and we want to demonstrate care and love for our family members. We can be released to demonstrate this love when we have a clear sense of mission and purpose and operate with a strong value system and ethical foundation.
Perhaps when we’re out working the grill or spending time with our relatives around Labor Day, we can take some time to reflect on the larger question. Three approaches can help us make sense of our thoughts, our emotions, our experiences, and our sense of something deeper in life. First, we need to ask value questions. What gifts, talents, and skills do I have to offer to life—not just my life, but to the life of the world? How do I add value? Secondly, we need to ask values questions. What are the most important principles around which my life is organized? How do I live my values? Finally, we need to ask ethical questions. How do I use my gifts, skills, and talents to add to my world? How do I practice my value and my values in my approach to life in my family, my community, and my work?
Labor Day, then, is a great opportunity to find some real contentment in how we spend our work life and, as we reflect on that for which we labor and strive, to surface some direction so we can make a positive impact on the world in which we live. IBI