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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

The courage of the American worker

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On this weekend, we honor work and workers.

We celebrate the bead of sweat, the calloused finger, the nurturing of a young mind, the artful assemblage of words, the tender care of the enfeebled, the stroke of a brush across canvas, the crank of a wrench, the face weathered by salty spray, the hand that plucks the fruit.

To some extent, what we do is who we are, at least that's how we seem to take ourselves and others. One of the first questions we ask each other when we first meet is, "What do you do?"

For the lucky among us, the Venn diagram of our passion and profession is a largely overlapping circle. It never mattered to me what my children did for work as long as it made them happy and they worked as hard as they could at it. The best thing life offers, Teddy Roosevelt observed, is "the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”

Politicians talk about the dignity of work. And there always has been dignity in working. But the work itself has been changing, and our conception of it has been taking a beating.

We were taught that with hard work comes success. You can achieve anything if you work hard enough. But the last 30 years, and particularly the last dozen, have shown us that that's not necessarily true. Many left behind in the recovery from our last recession know there is no guarantee about what hard work will bring you. But unless you're born on third base, there is a guarantee that you won't achieve anything without hard work.

Further dislocation looms. There's an e-commerce warehouse in Shanghai, China, that can pack and ship 200,000 orders per day. It's a mammoth operation run by four workers, each of whom services the robots who do the work. This will affect more than just the 1.2 million warehouse workers in our country. Estimates of displaced jobs in the United States over the coming decade run as high as the tens of millions. Re-skilling people for new jobs will be expensive; the World Economic Forum put the cost to the federal government and private companies of retraining 1.4 million U.S. workers displaced by automation at $34 billion.

Younger workers, displaced or not waiting to be displaced, likely will continue the migration that's spiked since 2007 — many will move to a big city. Rural America keeps losing jobs, metro areas add them. Nine of every 10 new jobs created since 2007 were in cities of at least 1 million people. But older displaced workers will stay put, weighed down by homes they often can't sell, aging parents they can't leave behind, and lower education levels that dim job prospects in more competitive areas. This will have profound implications not only for cities strained by swelling populations, but also for diminishing rural areas that must deliver more services to poorer people with a smaller tax base, for governments that must provide retraining, and for schools that must teach appropriate skills.

Protecting the dignity of American workers and their work is the best way to honor them. We can increase the minimum wage in places where it languishes, establish paid family and medical leave, guarantee universal access to affordable preschool, expand retraining programs, and extend labor protections to caregivers, housekeepers and agricultural workers.

The great French novelist Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work. American workers have courage to spare. It's the work part we all need to work on.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.