Labor pains

To survive and thrive, America should change the way it does business

Labor Day’s meaning is evolving – and not necessarily for the better.

The observance created at the turn of the 20th century to celebrate America’s labor movement is now widely considered the symbolic end of summer, a retail sales event and – for millions of hard-working Americans – a much-appreciated day off.

But for a growing number of people who choose not to work, Labor Day will be simply “Monday.”

There are fewer people working in 21st-century America.

And the problem is worse than the nation’s current 6.4-percent unemployment rate lets on. That measures only those actively seeking work. If the number included part-time workers desiring full-time employment, the nation’s “underemployment” rate is 15.1 percent, according to research firm Gallup.

But the most complete snapshot of the American worker is the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ labor force participation rate, which simply divides everyone of legal working age into two categories: those who are employed, and those who aren’t.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Through the end of July, the U.S. workforce rate was 62.9 percent, meaning about four out of every 10 Americans are not working, either because they can’t or won’t find a job, or feel they don’t have to.

The U.S. labor force hasn’t been this small since Jimmy Carter was in the White House nearly 40 years ago.

For a nation that became the undisputed global superpower based on the industriousness, entrepreneurship and resoluteness of its citizens, this is alarming.

Obviously, retirement-age baby boomers are leaving the work force, but not in the droves one might expect. Recent labor statistics show boomers actually are working more – not less.

Labor participation rates among people 55 and older increased from 61.9 percent in 2002 to 64.5 percent in 2012. Narrow the population to traditional retirement age – 65 to 74 – and participation increased from 20.4 percent to 26.8 percent.

Fear of running low on money is a motivator. A recent Gallup poll shows 68 percent of people ages 50 to 64 worry about having enough money to last through their retirement, and nearly 40 percent of boomers plan to keep working at least until age 66.

What’s more telling – and unnerving – is what demographic statistics say about Americans in their prime work years, ages 25 to 54. BLS figures show labor participation rates among that group decreased from 76.4 percent in 2002 to 70.9 percent in 2012.

When a growing nation sees a 7.2 percent decline in its number of young, family-supporting, household-heading workers in a single decade, something has gone terribly wrong with the nation’s public and economic policy.

Vibrant and productive labor markets make strong economies. Strong economies make stable, secure and prosperous nations. If America is to remain the world’s undisputed economic superpower, the nation must change the way it does business.

Here’s a good start:

Stop relying on excessive government “help.” Americans need to recognize governments do not create wealth. They can only consume or redistribute wealth that already is created.

It’s been proved time and time again, most recently by the Obama administration, whose first-term solution to the Great Recession of 2009 was to go on an unprecedented orgy of government spending that it predicted would produce several years of 4 percent economic growth.

Average annual growth in real gross domestic product between 2009 and 2012 was 1 percent. Compare that to the 20-year laissez-faire period from 1981 to 2000, where average annual growth in real GDP was 3.4 percent.

End regulatory “creep.” Every year, federal, state and local governments adopt new laws, codes and ordinances that are of dubious benefit to the general public but extremely costly for business and industry.

Every dollar spent complying with make-work regulations is one dollar unavailable for hiring. No wonder so many companies are avoiding full-time workers for part-timers, temps and – wherever possible – computers and machines.

Stop wage manipulation. Minimum-wage laws distort free markets and disproportionately harm small businesses and the economy’s lowest-skilled workers. Decades of studies show minimum-wage hikes correlate to reduced hours, hiring freezes, layoffs and the shifting of duties to existing employees.

If we want to grow the middle class, then work on creating middle-class jobs. Stop trying to artificially turn low-skill, entry-level jobs into something they are not.

Promote educational diversity. Generations of Americans have been brainwashed into thinking prosperity starts and ends with a four-year degree. The facts show otherwise: 14 of the 20 fastest-growing occupations require an associate’s degree or less, according to the BLS.

Parents and educators must realize not every young person is served best by a liberal arts education. Many pushed into the system end up in jobs with salaries insufficient to cover the mountain of debt they incur. For every struggling English-major barista, there likely is a skilled welder or electrician earning three times the pay.

Give American jobs to American workers. A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies indicates most new jobs since 2000 have been filled by immigrants – legal and illegal.

Whether it’s skilled, high-tech workers legally entering through the overexploited H-1B program, or unskilled laborers illegally crossing the southern border, the end result is the same – lower wages and lost job opportunities for native-born workers.

Immigration advocates – whose livelihoods and political clout are tied to a steady stream of low-cost foreign labor – continue to perpetuate the meme that immigrants are merely doing jobs Americans “don’t want to do.”

That myth is debunked by a July survey of likely voters by Polling Co., which showed nearly half of Americans support a zero-immigration policy – similar to what the country had from 1915 to 1964 – and that 67 percent believe jobs now held by illegal immigrants should be given to U.S. workers.

Make it in the U.S.A. It may come as a shock to a generation of soft-handed hipsters, but America cannot get by on a service-based economy alone. America actually has to produce tangible goods. It’s basic economics: A nation that produces little of what it consumes eventually will lack the wealth to consume anything.

Manufacturers require affordable energy and skilled, productive workers to thrive. Thanks to hydraulic fracturing and other new technologies, huge deposits of oil and natural gas are being discovered throughout the United States. These technologies need to be promoted, not protested.

And heavily unionized manufacturing regions in the northeast and upper Midwest should take a hint from the more-prosperous, right-to-work states in the South and West. Labor unions, once necessary and vital in America, now serve to increase costs and decrease productivity – both of which are poison to manufacturers.

Quit promoting a jobless culture. In modern America, layabouts can live in relative comfort thanks to the growing welfare state. For millions of Americans, a “job” is an abstract concept, because of the undoing of 1990s-era welfare reforms during the past decade.

The federal bureaucracy has gone full-throttle to loosen eligibility for programs that discourage work, foster helplessness and create generational dependence on the state.

Take the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamp program, for example: Only one-third of recipients report “earned income,” meaning a job, despite the fact one in 10 are “ABAWDs” – bureaucrat-speak for an “able-bodied adult without dependents.”

Many people who don’t work aren’t contributing their full potential to their households, the economy and – considering a job is a main point of community contact with society in general.

Work’s impact on individual dignity and self-worth can’t be overstated. How can a nation be proud if its residents aren’t?

If our culture of industriousness, entrepreneurship and resoluteness skips many more generations, it may be lost forever. We sincerely hope this country’s leaders can right this ship.

Only then will Labor Day be something to truly celebrate.

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