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New generation, same grit

1 week ago
David Surdam
Drawing of a workers protest

Today’s college students appear much less enamored with “big business as usual” than their immediate predecessors. Students today are faced with a job market requiring nimbleness, as large corporations no long offer lifetime employment that Americans of the past experienced.

Perhaps because their interests are no longer as aligned with large corporations, today’s students appear more critical of such business entities’ intimacy with politicians. Bernie Sanders always struck me as a bizarre pied piper for today’s youth; aside from the promise of “free stuff,” I think his message of repudiating Wall Street's power (a power that is likely an exaggeration to some degree) resonated more with young people than older people. Certainly candidates Clinton and Trump’s profound ties to big business raised hackles among younger people.

From a business ethics aspect, crony capitalism raises troubling issues. Should corporations influence powerful legislators to enact legislation that is strictly favorable to corporations’ interests, and the public be darned? If today’s youth push back against such an ethical quandary, these efforts are probably an advance over previous generations.

Today’s young people’s fascination with “socialism” may be a result of poor understanding of history, although Venezuela’s sad experiment with socialism is not yet even history. Young people may be mixing the desire for everyone to share America’s gigantic economic pie with the practical difficulties in implementing such egalitarianism. The fascination with socialism is not novel; the Baby Boomers flirted with socialism (among other “isms”) during the 1960s. Boomers also denigrated “working for the man” back in the 1960s; the “man” was typically some business executive.

Young people may not recognize a couple of the benefits of large corporations. First, business in America, including agribusiness, for all of its faults, has created a cornucopia of goods. Food consumes a small proportion of the average modern family’s budget as compared with American families of 1900. Of course, “average” masks a range of outcomes. Families with very low incomes or very many mouths to feed may find that they need to devote a much larger share of their income to food and other basics, whereas a family of two professionals devote an almost trivial proportion of their budget to food. To be sure, agribusiness has some drawbacks (almost every human endeavor does), but it has helped provide America with a huge economic pie to divide into slices.

Second, the forcible redistribution of resources can create unintended and adverse consequences. Americans are notorious for resisting authority—a proud legacy for which today’s youth can be grateful to previous generations. Persuading billionaires to voluntarily fund programs to help the poor would seem a more civil approach than trying to expropriate their wealth. On the other hand, many people believe that individuals have a right to food, shelter, health care and other items. People holding such beliefs may pay scant attention to the ethical implications of forced redistribution, and, in fact, may not be troubled by such.

If stated as a “right to keep what you earn,” then the producers who earned their wealth by providing goods and services that consumers desired should have the right to disburse the wealth in the manner they see fit. This would complement a “stewardship” approach to wealth. Business ethicists of the past often emphasized stewardship.

Wealthy creative people may believe they are more capable than the average person in distributing resources to help the poor. Stewardship and voluntary giving may inspire people to use their skills, experiences and resources in creative and novel ways to mitigate poverty. Some industrialists of the nineteenth century, for instance, hired experts to help them disburse funds. For young business students, exposure to alumni’s experiences may inculcate recognition, compassion and willingness to tackle poverty.

Reasonable people can disagree with the desirability and even the ethics of these different approaches. They may differ on the goals, on the approaches’ efficacy in alleviating poverty and on the unintended consequences of such different approaches.

These are basic issues facing all societies across time and place. The fact that there is no unanimity with respect to which approach is “best” (if there is, indeed, a “best” approach) ought to inspire humility in all of us. People have struggled for millennium to create an optimal society. So far, we have failed.

The young generation may be more attuned to the plight of the less fortunate, and perhaps they will create a legacy of mitigating poverty and distress to a greater degree than previous generations. They, at least, appear more inclined to do so.


Headshot of David Surdam

David Surdam

Professor of Economics
David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow

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