Labor Day is an odd name for an occasion antithetical to work. The barbecues, beach volleyball, and general loitering celebrate leisure rather than endeavor. It should be the other way around. In their professional lives, Americans have never had it so good.
In Have A Nice Day!, an engaging and beautifully illustrated report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, authors W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm show how dramatically work conditions have improved over the last century. Their study amply demonstrates that U.S. offices and job sites have become safer and more comfortable as America’s 135 million employees have gained greater control over their careers.
Cox, the Dallas Fed’s chief economist, and Alm of the Dallas Morning News, recall how miserable and downright dangerous earning a living once was. “Modern workers can hardly imagine what days were like for glue stirrers, lime burners, gravediggers and acid mixers,” they write. “Work rules were draconian: no talking, no eating or drinking, not a minute late punching the time clock.” Yesterday’s smoke, soot and sack lunches have yielded to today’s indoor air quality tests and lunch breaks at off-site restaurants.
Work-related mishaps still occur, but more rarely. On-the-job deaths have fallen from 428 per million workers in 1930 to 214 in 1960, 134 in 1980 and 87 in 1990. Last year’s figure was just 38. Industrial accidents nearly have been halved in one generation. Nonfatal injuries have dropped from 108 per 1,000 employees in 1973 to 58 in 1999.
Safety has improved as workers have migrated from blue collar, manufacturing jobs towards white collar, professional and service positions. While many Americans today suffer carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive-motion ailments, this old problem was worse. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of the workforce most prone to such injuries has fallen from 11.3 percent to 6.9 percent of employees. As Cox and Alm explain: “There’s less risk of injury while pushing ideas around in the information economy.”
The American workplace is not only less dangerous. For most employees, it is becoming downright cozy. According to a 2000 survey by the Land’s End catalog company, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies had adopted more casual dress codes since 1995. In 1997, 27.6 percent of Americans enjoyed flexible work hours. Only 13.6 percent were so lucky in 1985.
Why even go to the office? Millions of Americans use PCs and e-mail to work from home. (As I write these words, I am barefoot, wearing a T-shirt and listening to a Latin jazz album.) Some 23.6 million Americans telecommuted last year. About one-seventh that number did so in 1990.
Companies now offer benefits that were unimaginable 25 years ago. Workers increasingly enjoy exercise rooms, paternity leave, on-site child care and even paid sabbaticals. Generous 401(k) retirement plans are now available at 81 percent of U.S. firms. Average real hourly wages and benefits grew 175 percent between 1947 and 2000, even as the typical workweek shrank by 15 percent.
Why do companies go to such trouble? Labor unions — despite their 50-year decline — and government regulators have demanded some of these developments. But far more important, employers understand that happy workers generate higher profits. Telecommuting, for instance, saves companies an annual average of $8,634-per-employee, JALA International, an industrial consultancy, reports. The 100 best companies for which to work, according to Fortune magazine, offered shareholders a 36 percent 10-year return, double the 18 percent for the S&P 500.
Of course, this silver lining comes with a few clouds. Some Americans, especially managers and entrepreneurs, seem to work everywhere, all the time. Beepers and cell phones have left millions permanently on duty. As the economy cools and layoffs mount, many Americans would prefer even unexciting jobs to unemployment benefits.
How do we part those clouds? “It takes steady, long-term economic progress — forged with new technologies, expanding markets and higher productivity — to achieve a level of development that delivers better and better working conditions,” Cox and Alm write. For starters, Congress immediately should slash or eliminate capital gains taxes and give the Bush administration fast-track authority to accelerate free-trade agreements. Such concrete steps would finance innovation, boost exports, attract cheaper inputs and spur the creativity that foreign competition necessitates.
While Labor Day sadly marks summer’s unofficial end, American workers still have plenty for which to be thankful. It’s almost enough to make one swap a beach towel for an ergonomic work station. Well, not ‘til Tuesday.