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Saturday, September 20, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 8/30/2014

COMMENTARY

Labor Day: A time to forget what’s not in your wallet

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek Johanek
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What’s in your wallet? The credit card company that asks the question in the TV commercial is interested in what plastic you’re carrying.

But people don’t want to talk about what’s in their wallet. Touchy subject. With any luck, there’s enough in the billfold to put on a back-yard barbecue this weekend.

Back-to-school supplies depleted disposable income. Credit cards are charged to the max. So what is in your wallet?

Money is tight for 99 percent of us. Surviving under a constant budget crunch is the norm.

What’s to celebrate on Labor Day? Monday off? Marking the social and economic successes of the American worker is anachronistic in 2014, no?

When Americans made things and earned livable wages, Labor Day was something to laud. Productivity and the American standard of living were proud accomplishments, things the world could emulate.

More than a century ago, a national holiday was established to recognize what the U.S. Department of Labor Web site calls “the vital force of labor” in fortifying the country with growth and prosperity. The department also says Labor Day was originally intended to extol “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” with fun and festivities for all.

How quaint. Sort of makes you pine for the days when employers were generous, employees were loyal, and companies were like one, big, happy family.

But that’s history. Like regular pay raises, it is long gone.

Today, profits determine company culture. Human capital is a drag on the bottom line.

Employees, with little leverage, settle for whatever they get. They do the work of two or three people, without commensurate pay.

Employees bite their tongues. At least they have jobs — a 21st-century mantra. They know plenty of people who don’t.

Many of those poor souls have run out of savings and options. So the American worker, saluted this weekend, sticks with pay cuts, wage freezes, and stagnant income.

But limited compensation doesn’t begin to cover cost-of-living expenses. Lower-paying positions can’t compete with higher prices.

Food and fuel consume most of small paychecks. Disposable income has become a punch line in jokes.

We spend less because we earn less. But less buying power means less business, less stability, less help wanted.

Empty storefronts and padlocked plants litter the landscape. Hopes for a vital labor force to turn fortunes around has diminished.

The middle class, once considered the economic backbone of the country, is falling into financial oblivion. House values are falling. Net worth is falling.

The American standard of living is dropping. A recent report predicts it’s in danger of falling by 9 percent by 2030, or back to what it was in 2000.

The analysis, by the global consulting firm Accenture, blames the drop on low work-force participation, declining productivity, and an aging population. Employers aren’t finding employees — and vice versa — to fill a yawning skills gap.

Productivity growth has plummeted to 1960s levels. Retiring Baby Boomers will reduce greatly the U.S. working-age population.

A comfortable standard of living is tough to sustain when the economy isn’t sustained. “For decades, people have come to expect our economy and way of life to continue to improve, not decline,” said Peter Hutchinson, who wrote the study.

But he warned: “For the first time in our nation’s history, the next generation may not be better off than their parents.” Life is not as good as it used to be.

The red flags are everywhere. Americans are drowning in debt, downsizing lifestyles, and raiding retirement funds.

The hits keep coming. Income inequality keeps rising. The cost of living keeps rising. College tuition keeps rising.

College graduates, with gargantuan student loans, are working at Starbucks. Service sector jobs are all they can find.

Many are either underemployed or unemployed. A lack of money forced them to move back home with a degree and a lifetime of debt.

While the wealthiest Americans outpace their global counterparts, a vast slice of the American population not only has stopped keeping pace with the rest of the world, but is losing ground. People postpone dining out, seeing a movie, going on vacation, and building a future.

But relax while you can. Enjoy a beer and a burger. Labor Day is an excuse to forget about work and what’s not in your wallet.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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