My Labor Day weekend got off to something of a bleak start. An old friend e-mailed to say hello. She wrote that when we last spoke a few years ago, as I probably recall, she had gotten a master’s degree from NYU and a job on Wall Street. Since then, she lost her job during the financial crisis, and her most recent job was as a cashier working for minimum wage. This Labor Day will no doubt be bittersweet for her.
For her, and for millions of Americans, I should say.
The statistics are so slow to improve that I fear we are desensitized to them. Over 11 million workers are unemployed — 7.4 percent of the labor force is looking for work but can’t find it. An unemployment rate of 7.4 percent is awful. Over 8 million workers are working part-time for economic reasons, given only limited hours because of slack business conditions or because they could only find a part-time job. Over 4 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. The unemployment rate for high-school dropouts is 11 percent. The unemployment rate for black teenagers is over 40 percent. The share of the population aged 25 to 54 with jobs — one of the best indicators of the overall health of the labor market — took a big hit during the Great Recession, and hasn’t even come close to recovering. At the recent pace of employment growth, it will take many years to restore the labor market to full employment.
Labor Day is set aside to celebrate American workers. It seems a touch unpalatable to celebrate American workers when so many of them can’t find jobs.
We also celebrate work itself on Labor Day, of course. Celebrating work quickly turns into celebrating Mr. Springsteen, who wrote in a song last year:
Freedom son’s a dirty shirt
The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt
A shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone
Work does set us free — it emancipates us from our passions by occupying our time. It frees us from among the worst torments of modern (and comfortable) life: boredom. Work frees us by giving us the opportunity to do what we ought.
Work educates the passions by directing them to productive ends. Work gives us a sense of identity; much of who we are — for Americans, probably too much — is defined by what we do. Work gives us a sense of purpose. Work gives us the ability to meet among the most primal needs: providing for our children and caring for those whom we love.
Work allows us to be creative, to express ourselves. In the parlance of our MBA culture, work allows us to contribute to the team. In extolling the virtue of the price system over central planning, the great economist F. A. Hayek, in one of the greatest essays ever written in economics, celebrates “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” Hayek writes: “It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”
“We need to remember,” Hayek continues, “only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, [or] how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs” to understand the important contributions an individual can make using “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.”
“To know of and put to use a machine not fully employed, or somebody’s skill which could be better utilized, or to be aware of a surplus stock which can be drawn upon during an interruption of supplies,” he writes, is key to making a firm profitable and to maximizing economic growth.
Hayek is, of course, correct. In a market economy, when all goes according to plan, every worker can contribute because every worker is an expert in his little corner of the shop. The product of those marginal contributions across all workers is vast. And each contribution gives the worker a well-deserved sense of productiveness, expertise, craftsmanship, and pride.
It is no stretch at all to say that work, properly understood, is deeply spiritual. Blessed John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens that man is “called to work.” John Paul the Great points out that “in the very first pages” of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, in being told to “subdue” the earth, man is told to work. “Man is the image of God,” writes John Paul, “partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.”
If to know God we have to be like Him, then we have to build, to create — to work. Indeed, the Church teaches that in working, even in our ordinary, daily tasks, we are “unfolding the Creator’s work.”
Those who can’t find a job are deprived of all this. In this sense, our badly damaged labor market is not just an economic crisis, but a moral one. How can a young person build a life, find a spouse, and make a home without a job? The probability of suicide goes up when a worker is unemployed. Divorce rates are higher when the unemployment rate increases. The children of unemployed workers tend to have relatively worse labor-market outcomes. Unemployment is associated with a range of psychological problems. The loss of a job often means a loss of self, of identity, of purpose, of the ability to provide for yourself and your family, to contribute to society.
Can government do anything to help? Can public policy reduce unemployment?
Yes. In the June 3, 2013, issue of National Review, I laid out steps the government can take to help the unemployed that conservatives and liberals can support. Some steps require the government to get out of the way. Others find a role for positive government action. Anything that can be done to help heal our damaged labor market should be considered and debated.
Those debates might be a good use of Labor Day 2013. Celebrate workers and celebrate work, of course. But such a celebration will be tinged with melancholy when so many of our fellow countrymen are out of a job and can’t find work. So this Labor Day, let us leaven our celebrating with solidarity. Let’s think of the unemployed.
How can we help them? How can we get Congress and the president to act? How can we employ our labor to make their lives better, to allow them to reach their full human potential?
— Michael R. Strain is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.