On a recent day in Seattle’s South Lake Union, a hardhat-clad construction worker directed traffic away from two noisy concrete trucks’ churning payloads. Flocks of tech workers surrounded entrepreneurial food trucks while others took workplace-welcome dogs for a lunch-hour stroll.
A taxi driver trawled the streets for ride-seekers who hadn’t already hailed a Lyft or Uber. At Amazon Go on Boren Avenue, shoppers entered the store with QR codes, gathered packs of batteries, chocolate-chip cookies and other essentials and walked out, purchases recorded, no clerk needed. At an alcove stocked with beer and wine, a lone employee checked IDs.
On this 125th anniversary of Labor Day as a national holiday, the nature of work has changed beyond what early celebrants could have imagined. When President Grover Cleveland set aside the first Monday in September to honor the American laborer, work nearly always yielded something tangible — a shirt, a railroad car, a load of ore or a bushel of grain.
The second Industrial Revolution’s birth of mechanization and mass production was a time of upheaval. Waves of rural migrants and millions of immigrants moved from farms or overseas homelands to find work in booming cities. Hours were long, conditions brutal, wages impossibly low.
It would take decades for American society to fully adapt to this rapid transformation, for regulation, labor unions and custom to tame the wild impulses of industry. But gradually, a new equilibrium was established, a common understanding of and expectations for work. Children moved from factory floors to classrooms. The 40-hour workweek was established. Laws passed and regulations written to shore up the system’s weaknesses and soften inequalities — a process that continues to this day, even on the brink of another seismic shift.
Automation, data and artificial intelligence are redefining human job descriptions, which themselves are influenced by consumer demand, and workers’ shifting qualifications and expectations. Confronted with the environmental and economic consequences of a century’s rapid growth, industry leaders are rethinking benchmarks of success. The Puget Sound region leads in this transformation, as a walk through South Lake Union — or any number of neighborhoods — attests. This historical moment can be as unsettling as it is exciting.
This uncertainty would resonate with laborers of the 19th century, as mind-boggling as the particulars might be. The way forward is similarly simple: Muster the creativity, adaptability and full engagement of workers, employers, educators and policymakers to navigate our changing economy. Work to create the opportunities and safeguards that will lead to ample meaningful, self-sustaining and fulfilling opportunities for generations to come.