Labor Day looked a lot different in the late 19th century than it will for you in 2022. Chances are you will enjoy time with family and, despite the heat, celebrate the traditional end of summer. 

In the late 1800s, things were a lot more serious. Starting in 1882, parades of laborers marched through major cities, demanding better pay and fewer hours, and risking their own jobs in the process.

In 1894, the Evening Star in Washington said, “It was undoubtedly the intention of those who introduced the first Labor Day resolution to make the holiday one apart from all others, especially so in the nature of its observance.”

So much for intentions. Now, we treat it much the same as we do any other Monday off of work. 

A big reason for that is innovation, which often translates into automation or machinery. That was one thing organized labor feared back then. It’s one thing people got wrong.

Back in the 19th century, the Luddites in England were destroying machines that produced textiles more efficiently than workers could by hand, thus depriving them of their craft. Today, we hear similar worries. Truck drivers complain that self-driving vehicles will make them obsolete. Cashiers worry robots will do their jobs.

History says they may be right, but that the overall result of automation will be more jobs, greater productivity and higher living standards. 

The history of the United States has proven this through a steady march of job-ending, but life-improving, technology. 

In 1800, about 75% of Americans farmed, and many did it for their own subsistence only. By 1900, thanks to the invention of machines and innovations, that had dropped to 40%. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 1.4% of Americans are farmers, and they produce enough to feed the rest of the nation and much of the world.

In their book, “It’s getting better all the time,” Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon quoted a Colorado farmer who remembered how, a half-century earlier, an acre of planted onions would produce about 200 sacks. When the book was printed about 20 years ago, that was up to about 800 sacks, thanks to machines, technology and scientific methods that improved yields. 

The website stacker.com reports that labor productivity, or the average amount each worker can produce in an hour, jumped by 299% from 1950 to 2018. While income rose only 152% during that same time (a completely different discussion), the variety and cost of goods brought on by innovation has increased the standard of living.

Despite drops in the last two years, the average life expectancy in the United States has gone from 49 years in 1900 to 76.1 years in 2021.

The introduction to Moore and Simon’s book says, “Although the rest of the world lags behind the United States in most measures of material well-being, almost everywhere the same trend of improvement is evident.”

Writing for the Harvard Business Review last year, Nahia Orduna noted that a World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report said 85 million jobs may be displaced by machines by 2025, but that 97 million new ones may be created. These, she said, “are actually better opportunities” than the old jobs.

Harry Holzer of the Brookings Institution wrote recently that, throughout history, the fears of automation “have been mostly wrong — but not entirely.” The key is providing education and training.

“AI will increase the challenges many workers will face from automation,” he wrote, “while still contributing to higher standards of living due to higher worker productivity.”

None of this is meant to downplay problems in the current economy, from inflation to the gap in pay between low- and high-income earners. Nor is it meant to ignore labor unions or the debates over their worth, whether we’re headed for a recession or the current trends of the great resignation or quitting in place. Sometimes, however, it’s important on a holiday to step back and look at long-term trends.

Labor Day can be a difficult one to celebrate. Rather than a day apart, it seems to lack purpose. It doesn’t have the patriotism of the Fourth of July nor the solemnity of Memorial Day or Thanksgiving. But perhaps it seems abstract only because of the progress made since it began. For that, we should give thanks.