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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

For once, it's time to actually talk about labor on Labor Day

The U.S. workforce has gone through massive changes in these pandemic years. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, takes this Labor Day weekend to think about what our jobs mean to us.

Today is Labor Day. It’s a time when most of us appreciate the extra day off, or enjoy the big college football weekend. But this year it’s worth actually talking about labor on Labor Day, because it feels like there’s been a permanent shift — not just in how we work, but how we think about it.

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You all know about the Great Resignation — how COVID turned our world so sideways that millions of workers decided to leave their jobs and hit the RESTART button on their lives. There’s also a trend economists have called “quiet quitting,” where people are staying on the job but deciding to do only whatever’s required to stay employed.

There’s also a wave of union organizing in places like Starbucks and Chipotle, where workers on the low end of the wage spectrum are fighting for a few more dollars per hour.

For decades, if not centuries, the supposed struggle between workers and management has been a rout. Our biggest companies have shed employees like old socks while their CEOs buy bigger yachts. Employers have had all the leverage. But weirdly, because of a pandemic, the needle is starting to tilt the other way.

There’s a little bit of breathing space to think about what our relationship to work should really be.

My mom and dad worked brutal jobs their whole lives. When they were young they picked cotton. When they met they were working in a factory. As they aged, my dad built houses and my mom was a waitress. I would never trade my work life for theirs, except for one thing: They knew exactly when the workday was over. My dad might come home with grease on his hands, and my mom might come home smelling like shrimp, but when they washed it off, they were done.

For many of us these days, work never entirely washes off.

You might get a late-night email from your boss, or send one. Somebody might call over the weekend. Now that so many of us are working from home, it’s easy to slip away for a few minutes and finish up that one little project so you don’t have to worry about it tomorrow. When are you at work, and when are you not? It’s hard to tell.

There are benefits, of course. Those of us who work from home can do our jobs in pajamas if we want. It’s easier to watch over children or aging parents. Commutes don’t eat up so much of our days.

But I do wonder if it’s healthier in some ways to have a job where the whistle blows at 5 and you pack up and go home.

My whole career, I’ve heard people talking about work-life balance. Nobody would be talking about it if there weren’t an imbalance there. For many of us, our jobs are what define us — the first line of the obituary. We spend more time working than anything else — so much time that we often lose track of it.

I happen to love my job, and so getting to do the work I do is more of a blessing than a burden. But that’s not the case for everyone. And on this particular Labor Day, we should take a little time to think about how much we have a job, and how much the job has us.


Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.