Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do right.” We’re at a moment in history that is much more than the right time for business to do what’s right. We have an unprecedented opportunity to use the voice of business to focus our society on real solutions, to stand up against injustice, and to use the power of business as an instrument for healing.
No matter where you may fall on the political spectrum, as values-based leaders we can all agree that the current environment of rising insecurity, fear, hate speech, and violence is disturbing and dangerous. We’re witnessing a US presidential administration that perpetuates the cycle of fear, and is actively dismantling hard-won progress on many important fronts: protections for the planet, social justice, and economic equality. But this moment is about much more than a single individual or political ideology — it’s a referendum on an economic system that has left large swaths of the population behind. Conventional business practices are a big part of that economic system.
Many Americans face a bleak economic picture: 49 percent of US families with children are income insecure, meaning that they live below 250 percent of the federal poverty level; 55 percent of US households don’t have enough savings to cover a three-month disruption in income, such as a lost job or illness; 30 percent of Baby Boomers (people age 55 or older) have no retirement savings. Although the US economy has more than doubled since 1980, wages for Americans in the bottom 50 percent of earners have not increased. At the same time, income for the top 1 percent has more than tripled. Corporate profits have reached record highs, much of it due to dramatic advances in technological innovation.
Conventional thinking says that business growth through innovation is the engine of economic empowerment. And, with the appropriate protections for workers — i.e., labor unions and workplace safety legislation — economic growth is shared across many levels of society. However, recent technological innovation has brought a different dynamic.
Technology is changing the prosperity math
Innovations in technology have dramatically improved productivity. Now, more and better goods can be produced faster, and with far less labor. Some of the improvements are reflected in cheaper goods, but most improvements have gone into corporate profits and shareholder returns. Money that was once paid to workers now goes to the investor class, and business innovation has become a form of wealth redistribution up the income ladder. The long-term negative impacts will not be limited to blue-collar jobs. For example, Google is already working on artificial intelligence technology to help identify breast cancer, something that in the past could only be done by a human radiologist.
We are in an environment where economic uncertainty and fear are being used as a rallying cry towards a misguided message: to stoke xenophobic anti-immigrant fears and to militate for isolationist policies. We must use the voice of business to turn the discussion back to the real issues, and to create real solutions. We need to find ways for workers up and down the income ladder to share more equitably in the benefits of innovation that are made possible by our society. We need to acknowledge that technology is changing the nature of work, and the number and kind of workers that will be needed in the future. We need a new kind of innovation — a way to build ladders of opportunity so that workers displaced by technology are not permanently displaced from economic opportunity.
The Truth about Bias
There’s another fundamental reality the current unrest brings into focus: the role racism still plays in America. Racism is like a boil that’s deeply embedded in our culture, one that we’ve not yet summoned the courage to lance and drain. It sits below the surface in our national psyche, and it becomes inflamed in times of economic stress. That’s why racial anxiety could be used as a crude means of rallying many marginalized working-class whites — and to distract from more challenging conversations about economic inequality.
This reality about racism means that it’s critical for business leaders to stand up against injustice, to speak out against voices of hate, and to demonstrate the value of inclusivity by creating working environments that are welcoming to all. It also makes it even more important to build those ladders of opportunity, and to refuse to leave anyone behind —no matter whether they’re urban minorities or middle-America working-class whites. The economic strife that comes from leaving any group behind is a dangerous breeding ground for hate.
It’s time for business to act
Business has a large and powerful voice in our society. It’s a voice that has often been used to influence public opinion, government policy, and legislation. We now could use that same powerful voice as an instrument for healing: to turn our conversation back to the real issues, to use our powers of innovation to create solutions that generate broad economic prosperity, and to stand up against injustice and create inclusive environments. It’s an opportunity to do what’s right at the most important time. Let’s all figure out how to take it.