Labor Day 2021, is a good time to reflect on the meaning of work. This post was inspired by a children’s story about an owl and a squirrel to ask the same questions of work and workers that the owl asked of the squirrel.
Who is a worker? Anyone that undertakes effort that in some ways benefits other people. There are paid workers and unpaid workers, people who work for their families and people who work for strangers, people who work as part of a community and people who work alone. Work is not defined by a paycheck. That’s a job. (It was the squirrel’s work to keep cats from climbing trees and getting stuck, to slow down cars, and to store acorns for the winter.)
When is a worker? One is a worker when there is commitment. Even if the current job is not part of a long term commitment, a worker makes a promise to show up and do the work at hand, whether as a paid employee, a volunteer, or a family member or caregiver. Some people not currently employed are workers in search of an opportunity, or former workers who are enabled to desist from working by retirement programs and Social Security or who had to leave the workforce because of illness or disability. But most of them see some kind of work, however limited, as part of their future. Many retirees return to work as expressive rather than a source of income, embarking on second careers, care giving, or volunteering as they search for another source of meaning and community.
How is a worker? A worker is in a good space, satisfied and fulfilled when the work is meaningful, expressive, and appreciated, when the worker looks forward to the next day’s work (or night’s) as a place to feel useful and develop and practice the skills the job requires, when there is a sense of community and common purpose..
Where is a worker? In a pandemic era, that question is harder to answer. Workers may be working from home at least part of the time, and struggling to maintain their sense of community of a group of people with a shared mission A worker, paid or volunteer, is often someone who goes where his or her time and skills are needed. This Labor Day we especially need to honor the US. Military who handled the rescue work in Afghanistan and the workers and volunteers deployed for the earthquake in Haiti, the wildfires in the west, the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. As well as the health care workers hanging in through the long and challenging COVID pandemic.
Why is a worker? All of the above! That was the owl’s important question for the squirrel, why he gathered acorns, teased cats, and ran in front of cars. This year marks the first Labor Day in my long memory when there was a serious labor shortage, creating an opportunity for those who are mobile, fully vaccinated, and willing to try something new or explore their options. We may work to earn a living, but the kind of work we do as workers, owners, caregivers, and volunteers is also a source of meaning and purpose, an important locus of our networks of colleagues and friends, a chance to develop our gifts and skills and practice them, and a way to enrich the lives of others. If your work is not doing that for you, perhaps it’s time to rethink what you are doing.