Labor Day in the United States has become synonymous with BBQs, vacations, and back-to-school shopping sprees. As you crowd around the grill or the mall today with family and friends, consider your own labor situations. Are you happy at work? Are the people you lead also happy at work?
Labor Day evolved during an era of incredible tension in our nation. During the last two decades of the 1800s, workers carried out some 37,000 strikes in the United States – largely because the workers weren’t being treated fairly.
For example, workers for the Pullman Company, a railcar manufacturer, went on strike after their wages were cut by almost 30 percent, but the rents and prices at company-owned accommodation and stores remained static. The strike was backed by other unions, and a total of 125,000 workers on 29 railroads quit working. The federal government sent in the military to enforce a court injunction against the strike, leading to riots resulting in 30 deaths and $80 million worth of damages.
The workforce situation may seem to be vastly improved since Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894. However, data proves otherwise.
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The bottom line: Employee engagement and profitability have been declining since 1965 and turnover is skyrocketing. Why is this happening? Because our leadership is aging, our management practices are failing, and the gap between executive-level and entry-level talent has continued to widen.
History is repeating itself. We may not have riots breaking out nationwide, but workers are still ‘striking’, either by quitting their jobs or becoming increasingly unproductive and disengaged.
The fact is, this is a crisis that we, as leaders, could solve ourselves, because the crisis stems from organizations and their cultures. Quite simply, the workforce crisis is the result of an ever-widening gap between the Industrial Era 20th century-managed organizations, and the Post Industrial 21st century-raised workforce.
In the 20th century, the economy was fueled by natural resources and structured by hierarchy. Now, we’re well into the 21st century, a talent-driven economy characterized by knowledge, innovation, globalization, mobility, and customization—but too few organizations have shifted away from 20th-century workforce practices.
With a 21st-century generation now composing the majority of the workforce, employee turnover has accelerated and the workforce crisis has worsened. For organizations to succeed, several factors need to be modernized and addressed, including the relevance of people and profits; changing demographics and evolving definitions of work; leadership ability and cultivation; future planning; and talent development.
Labor Day was designated a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and wellbeing of our country. My concern is that a day of tribute isn’t enough. As a nation, we aren’t dedicating nearly enough time and effort toward resolving our workforce issues.
Every membership association, business, government entity, and nonprofit needs to own this problem and make it a priority to resolve it. Because without talent, we have much to lose. Without talent, we have no purpose, no future, and no hope. Without talent, society fails.
We must put an end to the workforce crisis and make work work again. Then, and only then, we will be assured that we’re each doing our part to contribute to the strength, prosperity and wellbeing of our country.