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What Should Labor Day Really Mean?


9/10/2008 4:23:26 PM

For many years now, Labor Day has served two purposes. It has been a day of parades and other events to celebrate trade and labor organizations and the working men and women who are their members. And, it has traditionally been a day of barbeques and picnics to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year, the football season and the run up to the World Series. All in all, Labor Day is a special holiday for Americans, but I think it’s getting short shrift.

You see, the original Labor Day was established in New York City as "a day off for the working citizens". It was meant to celebrate everyone in the workforce, not just union members. And it was intended to be a day off from work for citizens, people who have rights as well as responsibilities. Of course, we all know our responsibilities at work—we are hired based on a job’s requirements and responsibilities, our performance is evaluated against those same parameters, and we can be fired when we are adjudged not to have measured up to them. It’s very clear, in short, that our responsibility is to provide a fair return on our employers’ investment in us as employees.

But what about our rights? Now just to be clear, I’m not talking about labor rights—the right to organize, and engage in collective bargaining. No, I’m talking about individual citizen’s rights. The right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Those rights don’t disappear when we go off to work. They aren’t something we have when we’re with our families, friends and neighbors, but something we lose as soon as we walk through the doors of our employers. Our rights as citizens are inalienable, which means they cannot be separated from us, wherever we are and whatever we are doing. And if that’s so, I believe Labor Day should celebrate our rights in the workplace as well as give us a rest from our responsibilities there.

The question, of course, is just how should we do that? I don’t think another parade or barbeque would do the trick. I can’t imagine that doing more of what we already do would make much of a difference in how we see and appreciate the holiday. Which means we’re going to have to try something new. So, here’s my admittedly radical suggestion. Let’s use the day off from our employers to work on our own careers. Let’s use Labor Day to labor for ourselves.

I know, I know. That seems more than a little far-fetched. At least, at first blush. But consider this: regardless of where you were this past weekend—whether you were lying on the beach, hiking in a park, watching your kids play soccer or playing a game of softball—I’ll bet half the crowd looked at least once at the Blackberries in their pockets or purses. In other words, they were using their Labor Day holiday to labor for their employers.

So, if many, maybe even most of us are already laboring away on Labor Day, why not spend a little quality time with our own careers? What would that involve? I suggest you give yourself a personal performance review. Now, don’t get all hot and bothered with that idea. I’m not suggesting the kind of evaluation you have to endure with your boss. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that, over the course of the three day holiday, you invest two hours in a private, candid conversation with yourself. That’s all. And since this year’s Labor Day is already behind us, I also suggest that you use this coming weekend to have this little chat.

What should you talk about? The state of your career. What you’re trying to find out is just how healthy or fit it is. Here are five questions that can help you with your assessment:

  • Question #1. Is your current job enabling you to hone the application of your current skill set and/or to acquire new skills? If not, you’re losing strength and endurance in the workplace and, as a result, undermining your ability to withstand the kind of sudden change in employment circumstances (e.g., a workplace downsizing or plant relocation) that is occurring with increasing frequency these days.

  • Question #2. Are you performing at your peak in your current job and are you doing so every single day? If not, your career is growing flabby and weakening your reputation as a quality employee and prospect for advancement.

  • Question #3. Have you taken advantage of the educational resources available at your professional association, local educational institutions and commercial training companies to keep your expertise in your career field at the state-of-the-art? If not, you’ve let the heart of your career atrophy and set yourself up for career cardiac arrest or what most of us call termination.

  • Question #4. Are you using online and offline opportunities to network with your peers and build a strong circulatory system of professional contacts? If not, you are shortening your reach and thus your ability to know about and compete for the best jobs in your field.

  • Question #5. Have you acquired any additional skills outside your primary field (e.g., using productivity-enhancing hardware or software or speaking an additional language) that would enable you to expand the contribution you can make on-the-job? If not, you have limited your flexibility and range of motion, and in today’s unforgiving workplace, that can make you a liability rather than an asset.

    The answers to these (and other similar) questions can give you a frank assessment of the health of your career. Once you have that personal insight, use it to take two additional steps:

  • First, pat yourself on the back for the progress you’ve made and the career victories you’ve achieved. Don’t wait for your supervisor, give yourself the recognition you deserve.

  • Second, remediate the areas of weakness. Don’t simply acknowledge that you have a problem or two. Fix them. Successful career self-management is a lot like riding a bicycle; you can coast for only so long and then, either you move forward or you tumble over and crash.

    So, here’s my take on Labor Day. Absolutely, it’s an occasion to take some time off, to give ourselves a little well deserved rest and relaxation. As important as that pause is, however, the holiday has an even greater purpose. It offers us a chance to be “working citizens” in the true sense of the phrase, to recapture our right to a meaningful and satisfying career. All we have to do to achieve that end is to spend a little quality time with ourselves working at it.

    Thanks for reading, Peter



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