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Making a living -

Sep 2, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

America's labor picture is a huge thing, and we all are part of it

Labor Day weekend has arrived for 2012. It comes on the heels of a Republican National Convention, just ahead of the start of the Democratic National Convention, and with the start of the National Football League season in between.

In the presidential race, there are just two finalists for the job. In the NFL, employment is limited as well, with some very specific qualifications -- and ample remuneration. Meanwhile, the officials who call the games are in the midst of labor action themselves, demanding better pay and being "locked out" by the league.

These "labor" situations are odd by the standards of the average American, but they do help paint the picture of the mind-boggling diversity of work in this country.

The job market has been rough for a few years now, and it's not just the football referees (or the presidential candidates). Still, there are about 150 million Americans with jobs as Labor Day arrives this year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 85,000 more people found jobs just last month.

That seems like a lot, but economists remind us what a huge thing it is, and that 85,000 jobs is about what the economy needs to do every month just to keep pace with job losses on the other side of the scale.

Our country has something of a fixation on trying to figure out the world of work. We try to count how many people have jobs, but we don't ever get it quite right. We try to estimate how many people want jobs but don't have them, or how many try to get jobs and fail, but in the same breath we admit our numbers are off. Whatever numbers we come up with, it never seems to satisfy the "experts" who make a living analyzing how other people make a living.

We do our best to figure out how productive our workers are, to calculate how much workers are paid in benefits, how much it costs when someone calls in sick, or when a less-experienced person takes over for a more experienced one, and any number of other analyses of labor in America.

We define jobs by category, by geography, by income, by longevity, by workplace safety, by the age and gender of the people doing them, by the race and ethnicity of the people doing them, by the performance of the people doing them, by their satisfaction and the satisfaction of their employers.

Many people have jobs about jobs -- trying to get jobs for other people, trying help people who are out of work or training to do new jobs, or trying to do the various computations about jobs.

We have huge economic and social organizations that aren't jobs but exist because of jobs. We have an enormous department of the federal government dedicated to the study and understanding of labor.

Once a year, we celebrate the American worker by ... not working. But even that isn't entirely true. Of the aforementioned 150 million people with full-time work in this country at least 10 million of them, apparently, won't get the day off tomorrow. For them, Labor Day will be a labor day.

A presidential campaign is nearing its finish, and labor figures are bigger in this one than in most. Voters might try to blame the president if we lose a job, don't get a job or don't get a raise. There's always a sneaking suspicion that whoever is running against the president hopes the job market won't really improve until after the election. That way, the president couldn't take credit for it if we get promoted, or get another 50 cents and hour, or another week's vacation.

Candidates promise to "create jobs," "protect jobs" and "fight for jobs." And why? So that the candidate can get a job.

Nothing depersonalizes something like the full government treatment, and a job is among our most personal things. If you have a job, it is a big part of your identity. Most of us, in fact, would work at something even if we didn't have to. Few people really want to be idle. We work to occupy ourselves, to challenge ourselves, to divert ourselves, to prove and improve ourselves, and to please ourselves.

If you get a day of leisure Monday, leave the stats and reports and trends and permutations behind, and take a minute or two between burgers, ballgames and the lawn mower to honor your job. It is yours and no one else's.

-- Steven R. Peck

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