Tom Campbell: Labor Day then and now

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 3, 2018

Labor Day was the saddest day of the year when I was young.

It signaled the official end of summer and the start of the routine of getting up early, going to school, doing homework and going to bed early. Mother had already taken us to Roses Dime Store to get a new notebook, Blue Horse notebook paper, yellow No. 2 lead pencils and a knapsack. Then to Belk’s for back to school clothes (mostly blue jeans and plaid shirts) and Jackson’s Shoe Store — growing boys always need new shoes.

But Labor Day was the day when the glorious freedom of summer came to a screeching halt; the next morning you grudgingly gathered in the school auditorium to learn who your teacher was that year.

As a parent I learned new appreciations for Labor Day. The kids had long been complaining of being bored — my wife used to tell them that boredom was a personal problem — and we were plenty ready to get them back in school. Having used up all our vacation days, Labor Day was one last day of rest from work before transitioning to fall and winter routines.

Life is all about transitions. The ages and stages of life: learning, work, then retirement and leisure. At least that’s the way it was supposed to be. No so today.

Take learning. At the end of World War II, the body of knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today human knowledge is reportedly doubling every 13 months. What you learned in school, what you learned when you first started working is obsolete. Unless you are a lifelong learner, life is very difficult to navigate.

The work stage of life has also changed. Gone are the days when you worked for a company for 25-30 years, got the gold watch and a pension. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average worker holds 10 jobs before age 40 and will have 12 to 15 jobs in their lifetime. Gold watches are as extinct as most retirement plans. If you’re lucky your employer has a 401(k) matching plan. But when you are 30, 40 or even 50 years old you are in the accumulating stage and data indicates we spend about as much as we earn.

When we reach retirement age (considered 65), most cannot afford to retire. The Census Bureau reports that the median net worth of households over 65 is $170,516, and that includes the equity in their homes. You cannot receive 100 percent of your Social Security benefits until at least age 66 and Social Security alone doesn’t buy much of a lifestyle. The average lifespan is now 78.7 years, so if you plan to retire at age 65 you are likely going to live another 15 years or longer. Do the math. In all probability you are going to be working longer and cashing in your home equity.

Welcome to the 21st Century. In this rapidly changing world our real work is to find joy and peace. In the 1800s, newspaper editor Alexander Chalmers observed “The three grand essentials of happiness are: Something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.”

Perhaps that’s our new North Star this Labor Day.

Tom Campbell, former assistant state treasurer, is creator/host of “NC SPIN, a weekly TV discussion of state issues that airs on UNC-TV main channel Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m.

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