It’s an often-noted point these days that Labor Day began in the United States with strikes and marches, but has mellowed in its post-centennial age into a holiday of retail sales and backyard grilling. (That observation may be widespread, but it’s not novel: here’s a version 50 years ago from the Chicago Tribune.)
But in case you’d like to ring in your Labor Day by reading up on how labor itself is changing in America, I’ve compiled a collection of recent coverage from The Atlantic that covers just that theme. One refrain in this coverage is the idea that Americans take less vacation time and work more hours than their counterparts in other rich countries. So if you are grilling today, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’ve probably earned it. Enjoy your Labor Day.
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A World Without Work
Since the era of the Luddites, people have been warning that technology will begin eliminating jobs. So far, these warnings have been wrong. But in The Atlantic’s July/August cover story, Derek Thompson examines whether it’s time to heed that warning:
The job market defied doomsayers in those earlier times, and according to the most frequently reported jobs numbers, it has so far done the same in our own time. Unemployment is currently just over 5 percent, and 2014 was this century’s best year for job growth. One could be forgiven for saying that recent predictions about technological job displacement are merely forming the latest chapter in a long story called The Boys Who Cried Robot—one in which the robot, unlike the wolf, never arrives in the end.
The end-of-work argument has often been dismissed as the “Luddite fallacy,” an allusion to the 19th-century British brutes who smashed textile-making machines at the dawn of the industrial revolution, fearing the machines would put hand-weavers out of work. But some of the most sober economists are beginning to worry that the Luddites weren’t wrong, just premature. When former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was an MIT undergraduate in the early 1970s, many economists disdained “the stupid people [who] thought that automation was going to make all the jobs go away,” he said at the National Bureau of Economic Research Summer Institute in July 2013. “Until a few years ago, I didn’t think this was a very complicated subject: the Luddites were wrong, and the believers in technology and technological progress were right. I’m not so completely certain now.”
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