OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Day after Labor Day blues

Monday holidays are funny around this shop.

To have a day off in the newspaper business generally means you have to work ahead. It’s not more work, it’s not so much hard as awkward. I like to take a breath after finishing a column; there’s something that feels off about writing them back to back.

I know, First World problems.

Regarding Labor Day, I’ve never been a union member, so carrying on about Joe Hill and Cesar Chavez might feel odd. While all wage earners benefit from the labor movement, I never joined a newspaper guild. I have never been a clock watcher, preferring to selfishly allow myself to be exploited. When it came right down to it, I am a bad comrade.

I bought in to what my coaches told me: The only way for those of us of ordinary gifts to succeed is to outwork everyone else. That’s not how the world works; people are never rewarded for how hard they work and only sometimes for the results they achieve. Most of the time some alchemical combination of sociability, political savvy and opportunism is more important.

I’ve seen people promoted because their bosses felt sorry for them; talented people passed over because their bosses felt threatened by them or needed them to continue doing exactly what they were doing. Almost every organization with more than a few people is subject to cronyism, and a bad or insecure leader intent on holding onto power by installing yes people in crucial roles can thwart the aspirations of good employees.

Life isn’t fair. Workplace comedies feel authentic because most of us witness absurdity in our jobs.

But we’re not sending kids into the mines anymore. So thanks, Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, for suggesting setting aside a day for a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Though maybe we should be thanking machinist Matthew Maguire for proposing the holiday. Both Maguire and McGuire were at the first Labor Day parade in 1887, but McGuire’s ALF co-founder Samuel Gompers thought Maguire’s socialist politics problematic and downplayed his role. Meanwhile McGuire was a self-promoter, more than happy to be known as “the father of Labor Day.” (See more office politics.) The holiday is supposed to be more about one last chance to celebrate the summer with cookouts, but Memorial Day is supposed to be a somber occasion too. Hold my beer.

. . .

Maybe it’s coincidental that around this time every year I get an email from the Social Security Administration suggesting I log onto its website to check my statement and estimated benefits.

These notices are disconcerting. They’re like seeing your name and birth year in print next to a dash holding a blank and inchoate space. Like someone is just waiting to type close-paragraph-period on you. Still, I try to be a good citizen and do what’s asked, though I have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to say.

My earnings record stretches back more than 50 years or so to a year when I earned (or reported to the Internal Revenue Service) $289. I made about 10 times that amount the next year, and nearly doubled that the next year. A graph of my early earning years would not swoop smoothly upward; it would look as a particularly skittish Chihuahua’s electrocardiogram might—skipping and skittering before stabilizing about 40 years ago.

From that point it climbs slowly, though not without stutters, most of which resulted from choices I do not regret—there’s a precipitous drop at the end of the 1980s corresponding with a tour of duty in alternative journalism.

In recent years there’s mild stagnation. But I can also identify years when freelance opportunities and side hustles provide little spikes here and there. There are few writers who don’t at some point take on other work to support their habit, but the general shape of my earnings curve might be unremarkable for a college-educated American of my age. (I’ve had backup plans. I used to have a chauffeur’s license and looked into being certified as a golf pro. I might be qualified to work in a liquor store.) Throughout my working life the economy has seemed volatile, but has not yet collapsed. It has been possible for prudent people to achieve a measure of security.

Though inflation has undermined our gains (it is sobering to think that when I started working in earnest, a $20,000 annual salary was equivalent to about $90,000 today), most of us were lucky enough that we were always able to support ourselves on the paychecks provided.

While the stock market is not the economy, it has been a source of comfort for a lot of 401(k) holders. Barring another economic catastrophe—which, depending on your sources, may or may not be likely—most of my generation might make it to the finish line with a degree of self-determined dignity.

But my friends’ children and grandchildren ought not have any expectation their incomes will increase from year to year, or that they will be able to count on one employer to keep them occupied for a decade or more. Even the best and brightest of them will face challenges we didn’t.

Our world has changed in a lot of ways. I was born in an era when a working person had a reasonable expectation of finding gainful employment, buying a house and raising a family on a single income based on a 40-hour work week.

That was over by the time I came of age, and the world young adults enter today is meaner yet.

Human beings are increasingly being seen as replaceable components as opposed to unique assets. Global corporations are faceless entities driven by pure self-interest to seek the least-resistance path to profits for their shareholders and structured to exist beyond any traditional bounds of national fealty—multinational corporations are beholden only to themselves and respect only their own internal culture.

They have grown too large to fail as the individuals who comprise them have become too small to matter. They are beyond the law, they have outgrown Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” the force that was supposed to ensure they ultimately operated to the benefit of society.

I have no solution to proffer, just the observation that this too shall pass. (Even people who can’t make a living wage can usually scrape together enough money for a gun.) The problem is, we don’t know what will succeed these dinosaurs.

I look at my SSA statement online and don’t worry so much. It says I have fully qualified for benefits.

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.

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