I am old enough to remember a time when corporate America acknowledged compelling motives other than profit. Today, it has seemed to me, profit first and always drives decisions, even when these appear to be carefully explained with crafted rationalizations to avoid the implication that profit rules. An easy one is climate: “Yes, what we are doing harms the planet, but we must do it to ensure profits!” There is an unstated message embedded: “We are invaluable, priceless corporate America; you must not question us; we provide jobs and sustain the economy; we know some of what we do is troublesome, but we must behave this way to survive!”
I tripped over today’s variation on this theme in the New York Times. “Some companies and restaurants have continued to raise prices on consumers even after their own inflation-related costs have been covered.” When confronted by journalists with this decision and asked for comment, one company explained they needed the added profit to pursue new products, to innovate. Sounds like the excuse, popularized by Big Pharma, is spreading.
When I first tried to understand corporate structures, initially in a high school economics class, I ended up creating a metaphor in my head of a three-legged stool. The three ”human” legs that made the stool possible (and stable) were the consumers, the employees, and the shareholders. Most of my adult life I have witnessed this stool being steadily reconstructed, interestingly assisted primarily through decisions of the judicial branch of government. Revisiting my metaphor, I think we now have a single long stick with a spinning plate on top: the shareholders, who claim only profit as their goal. It does not look stable.
This brief foray into corporate history through my personal lens is the context for my reflections on those “post Covid Cave” deconstructions that are uniquely corporate in character. First there was a great deal of fretting about the “Great Resignation”, where surprising numbers of employees, as their Covid “time out” neared an end, opted to simply resign their jobs rather than return.
Then it was reframed as the “Great Renegotiation” when it became clear that people were quitting because they did not like aspects of their job but were open to negotiating change or better jobs. More recently, data shows that most who left did not leave the work force; the vast majority found different jobs and successfully negotiated for better work conditions or desired outcomes. Corporate America’s insistence that these persons were opportunistic sloths was apparently not true!
The current fixation is equally interesting: the “Quiet Quitters”. These are workers still in their prior jobs, but they have opted to forgo the “hustle culture” of corporate America: they are “acting their wage”, doing precisely what their employers state are their responsibilities, and no more. Here a new dimension emerges: productivity declines, obviously having an impact on “Profits”. Some corporations are introducing punitive measures to address the problem, though they also know that finding replacement personnel is a problem. Firing has a new blurriness of danger built in. The Bureau of Labor Statistics just reported that US corporate productivity plunged in 2022 to levels around those of the 1940s. (Yes, back in the good old days of the three-legged stool).
These deconstructions fascinate me, and while those described here focus on employees, the emerging generations signal increased willingness to make comparable disruptions as consumers, particularly Gen Z. As is perhaps apparent, most consumers and most employees are also shareholders in some capacity within some system, though largely with very limited voice and impact. I am chronically curious about the mailings I get to vote as a shareholder for my retirement fund, as if I were deeply engaged and informed. I try to be honest with myself about this: perhaps I should know, but I recognize I don’t. I do not think I am alone or unusual in this.
Rather, I view much of corporate America as controlled by a small impenetrable elite with entrenched habits and views, hiring others to do their bidding and then living a lifestyle that disconnects them from the real world. It is my sense that most do not seem preoccupied by what is best for consumers or fulfilling and enriching for their employees. Jobs are often treated as benevolent opportunities that others should be grateful for, executive roles as entitlements. And the embarrassing huge differences in salaries between employees and those in executive positions provides a number-based documentation of the overall pattern. When they imply they are communicating honestly with me as a shareholder, seeking my input and influence, I do not trust or believe the message or the messenger. It is also clear that they do not attempt to be transparent in their communications with me, while giving the appearance of being so.
There are exceptions to all of this, among both corporations and executives. What is noteworthy is we view them not as norms but as exceptions. And what becomes increasingly apparent, is that things are shifting. Something is shaking the foundations of corporate America, and this provides a window of opportunity for creative change and innovation. Expecting any branch of government to responsibly generate new creative options is unlikely to end well. They too have “corporatized” themselves and have become part of the problem, though many seem unaware of that fact.
I return to ‘Sparkles”. I think we need to see where the creative new light is emerging, what is being imagined, and what is possible. People who are creating Sparkles are not opting to recreate the past. They do not appear to be fixated on expanding and becoming huge or on establishing monopolies. Creativity seems more compelling than control and competition.
Elders, I believe, can play a critical role in this “Sparkle” work. We can support, advise, provide arenas of gathering, congratulate, warn, insist on laughter and music, cite history, describe experiences…whatever we can offer that can move their efforts forward. It is a worthy investment of time and energy…hope and possibility! So far, I cannot discern the impact of these engaged elders on profits. Perhaps we will find a more nuanced and rich understanding of where and how we ‘Profit”.
“The concept of profit maximization is in fact meaningless.”
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