When I was teaching cross-cultural leadership at a business school, I would often remind students that cultural change takes a long time. After all, culture is built on shared values and beliefs, and those shared values and beliefs lead to the creation of a structure – or a system as some people call it – that organizes the way things get done in a society, and that structure is difficult to change. Changes in values and beliefs can take a long time, and changes in structure can take even longer (which is why sometimes you see situations where structures no longer reflect shared values and beliefs, and that creates a tipping point for change). 

Students seemed to understand this best when I gave examples about social changes regarding things like who should be able to vote (and when women and then African-Americans gained that right, which were significant structural shifts), who should be able to marry whom (and the rights to divorce and to marry someone of any gender), and who should be able to attend law school and medical school (which were seen as appropriate for only one gender for a long time).

Because real cultural change can take decades to occur, I was surprised by survey results published by Pew Research at the beginning of March. The survey was conducted in January, and it was probing the beliefs of people in the United States regarding why people are rich or poor. 

Now, a core value and belief in the U.S. is that with hard work, anyone can achieve success. The concept of success is usually characterized by a level of financial achievement, also known as being rich. In the American psyche, there is a fundamental belief that being rich is the result of hard work. And there is a fundamental belief that anyone can become rich if they work hard enough. These beliefs go deep. 

Yet the title of the article accompanying the research was, Most Americans Point To Circumstances, Not Work Ethic, For Why People Are Rich Or Poor”

The survey results showed that 65% of Americans polled said that someone is rich because “They have had more advantages in life than most other people.” And 33% said that someone is rich because “They have worked harder than most other people.” 

Meanwhile, in 2017, the same survey was conducted and 43% of people said that someone was rich because they had advantages while 45% of people said that someone was rich because of hard work.* 

This is a massive shift in a short period of time regarding a core belief of U.S. culture. And now that 22 million people have applied for unemployment over the last four weeks, it is reasonable to believe that this shift will become cemented further in the American psyche. After all, the people who have lost their jobs did not have a bad work ethic. They were not bad workers. They were laid off because of an exogenous shock that appeared in the form of a global pandemic, and that shock hit their industries hard. People working for airlines and hotels and restaurants and events and retail were not doing a bad job. They just happened to be working in industries disproportionately affected by public health responses to the virus. Economic hardship has come as a consequence of circumstance not as a consequence of a work ethic.

In informal conversations with people who have not lost their jobs and who work in industries that have not (yet?) been affected dramatically by the crisis, there is a sense of, “It could have been me; it could have been anybody.” Whereas previously people believed that being laid off had something to do with bad performance, there seems to have been a growing understanding since 2008 that being laid off could happen to people who were working hard. And perhaps the exogenous shock of the pandemic has put the exclamation point on this understanding. 

The reality seems to be clashing with the ideal, and that’s why there is such anger and so many people believe that the system is rigged against them.

So what does it mean? 

I think it means that we are going to have more conversations and dialogue – and perhaps eventually action – around aspects of our society that are associated with advantage, like: 

  • The funding, costs, and quality of education, from pre-K to technical schools to colleges and beyond, because those with advantage are more likely to have access to better education, and those with better education are more likely to get higher-paying jobs; 
  • The choices made around distribution of wealth, including discussions of universal basic incomes, wealth taxes, and profit-sharing with employees; and
  • Continued review and scrutiny around things like which entrepreneurs get funded by venture capital, who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who gets other kinds of access due to an inherited or ascribed advantage rather than hard work. 

I also think it means that there will be a desire to ensure that any future exogenous shock does not create disproportionate harm. After all, we are learning that exogenous shocks can hit anyone at any time, regardless of their work ethic. This realization could lead to more conversations and dialogue – and eventually action – around: 

  • Availability and costs of healthcare; 
  • Protection for workers in the case of catastrophic events; 
  • Paid sick leave;
  • Unemployment benefits; 
  • Increased support for government loans to businesses and what conditions, if any, are placed on those loans; 
  • Education and training for displaced workers; and
  • Access to basic needs like food, shelter, and medicine.

There could be changes in priorities and policies, and that would likely take many years given the nature of the policy-making process in the U.S., which is slow by design. 

But business leaders can make some changes without waiting for a policy shift. Assuming that most believe in the American value of hard work, business leaders can look to the aforementioned lists and double down on efforts to make sure that hard work (not advantage) is associated with success. And they can introduce benefits to employees and engage with communities to ensure that exogenous shocks are not catastrophic. 

Businesses don’t need to wait for governments to rethink how to support employees and communities. They can, and should, do some things on their own. 

*(There are some methodological differences due to phone and online responses, and Pew Research explains them here, but the results are consistent even when controlling for methodology.)