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In Celebration of American Workers

Workers at Pearl Street Power Station. Unkown source.

On September 5, 1882, Labor Day was observed for the first time in New York City. The celebration occurred just one day after Pearl Street Station, the world’s first commercial central power plant, began generating electricity. New Yorkers marveled as 400 street lamps began to glow, with little sense of how transformative the innovation would be to the economic and social fabric of the country. The U.S. economy looks much different than it did 135 years ago but we’re still seeing technology catalyze change around us in unpredictable ways.

Today our questions are often about where automation and artificial intelligence will lead our economy and society. Futurists, technologists, academics and other thought leaders are working diligently to anticipate economic shifts. These efforts are both important and appropriate. We must ready ourselves for disruptions on the horizon. Yet as we do so, we must also channel our energies to meet the needs of hard-working people whose productive activities shape our economy today. Amidst this backdrop of disruption, what do they want?

Research suggests that the answer is stability. Workers want the confidence that their everyday needs will be met. They’re focused on putting food on the table, keeping a roof over their head, and ensuring that they will never be one crisis away from losing everything. In this way, their focus is in the here and now—and it has to be. Over a quarter of Americans are finding themselves in new forms of working arrangements that lack the protections provided by standard jobs from generations past and estimates suggest that 44% of American workers lack the basic savings required to withstand poverty in the face of an income loss.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we are committed to supporting workers in the present while investing in strategies to make the future of work in America brighter. Achieving this goal will require collaboration across a broad range of communities, inclusive of the workers whom we celebrate today.

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