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Is Labor Day a holiday to celebrate if you can’t find a job?

AS WE PREPARE to celebrate the American worker this weekend (that’s the purpose of Labor Day, right?), let’s examine his very uncertain future.

In the near term, it is not all that good. The unemployment rate has topped 8 percent now for more than three years. Good jobs are hard to find.

Unless you are a schoolteacher or a government worker, you probably haven’t gotten a pay raise in five or six years. Much of private industry is hurting. Businesses can’t just raise taxes to give their employees a boost.

That’s not a good sign. Never in my lifetime has the economy been so bad that workers have gone the better part of a decade without a raise. Things have not been so tough since the Great Depression.

But the worst part of the economic slowdown is the fact that most businesses have abandoned their pension plans in an effort to cut expenses.

At first, that seemed a fair tradeoff. Workers were more than willing to give up money down the road to keep their jobs now. After all, the economy would soon brighten, we all felt, and benefits would be put back in place.

That hasn’t happened. In fact, in some cases, more benefits are being cut. And, despite the sacrifices of four or five years ago, some jobs are still being lost.

When you’re 30, the thought of a retirement pension is remote. When you reach 55, you begin to worry. How will I live when I retire? Will I be able to retire? Those questions have hit many Americans squarely in the face recently.

Fifteen years ago, I wrote an article predicting that those retirees of the late 1980s and the early 1990s were a charmed group. Many had worked for large companies that provided excellent pension plans. I said that I didn’t think any future generation would be as lucky. Unfortunately, I may have been right.

How will American workers without pensions get along as they age? Social Security sure won’t keep them out of the poorhouse. In fact, with many workers now having to settle for just part-time (32 hours or less) work, they won’t be paying that much into Social Security, which means that their monthly checks will be less.

The solution, at least according to the government and brokers who live on commissions, is for workers to invest in the stock market—you know, that financial entity that has crashed twice in the last 11 years.

If you were invested and are now back to even after those two downfalls, you should consider yourself a very fortunate person. There are still those who are $100,000 or more in the hole.

Where does a person working 32 hours a week and raising a family find extra money to stick in the stock market? There are few companies that offer matches these days.

The economic situation we now find ourselves in is not the fault of either President Barack Obama or even George Bush. And unless he has a magic wand, Mitt Romney will not be able to straighten things out.

There are a myriad of reasons why the American worker is in such a dismal situation this Labor Day and most can be traced back to greed.

In the 1950s and ’60s, labor unions demanded too much and that sent manufacturing jobs overseas.

During the late 1980s and the 1990s, we wanted it all—bigger houses, expensive vacations and an endless number of maxed-out credit cards.

We deemed pedicures and $200 tennis shoes as necessities and parlayed those demands into high-priced cellphones (and service) that put a world of mostly useless information at our fingertips.

We bought stocks in companies whose only assets could be deleted with the push of a computer key and we wondered why most floundered and went away. If we thought we had learned our lesson, we only have to look at Facebook stock to know that we haven’t.

Finally, all the bubbles burst. Now we face a future where raises are almost non-existent and retirement pension plans are as antiquated as Beta video recorders.

How will future workers retire? Beats me, brother! Unless something changes, Americans will be working until they die, which will put a further strain on the job market for younger workers.

So, if you’re one of those retirees with a good pension, thank your lucky stars.

Your children may never have it so good. In fact, they still may be living in your basement when you’re 90.

Donnie Johnston:

djohnston@freelancestar.com

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