The Changing (and Perplexing) Nature of Work

If you’re looking for telltale signs that a new generation of Americans is in control, all you need to do is look to the workplace for indicators. Granted this may be difficult to do for those of us who’ve ceded the rat race to the rats long ago and retired from corporate America, but it’s worth an intentional look. Why? Because the workplace has become the equivalent of the A1C finger prick. It can give us a quick read-out on societal trends.

It’s no big secret that the basic nature of work has changed, from the way we dress to the way we interact with our coworkers, and even our bosses. But, like every change there are hidden pot holes and even sinkholes on the road to professional achievement — and that’s the first thing that’s changed, the definition of achievement. It’s no longer as transparent and universal as a pay raise or a better office with a secretary like the workplace of the Fifties. Today, it's a mixed bag of perks to which we oldsters never even gave a second thought (let alone a first). One of them is a new-found power to prod companies to incorporate political beliefs into company policy and support movements like the ‘Green revolution’ or reserve a first-class seat on the ‘equity’ train. Activism wasn’t a part of our career plan. That we left to the unemployed who had more time on their hands.

Today’s corporate activist wants to change the world from inside the belly of the beast and use the beast to attack the status quo. It seems to be working, at least if you watch television and are a student of commercials. The avid commercial connoisseur (if there is such a thing) has seen a major shift from ads showing nuclear White families hawking products in favor of a Pareto Principle view (the 80/20 rule) whereby minority groups have taken their place. We’re constantly being shown scenes that exhibit an overrepresentation of America’s minorities, and that include alternative lifestyle groups’ participation as well — a move which flies in the face of tried-and-true marketing tactics.

Case in point, according to the U.S. Census figures: Blacks comprise 13.6% of our population, Hispanics/Latinos 19% (who can also be considered as White), Asians about 6%, while Caucasians make up the rest (62.4%), but that has not stopped advertisers from shifting their focus away from the largest demographic group and instead concentrating on the smaller segments of the buying public thereby ensuring a 'virtue signaling' thumbs up from special interest minority organizations. This ‘soft power’ approach is not the result of a corporate epiphany. Rather, it appears to be a result of pressure from street activists like Black Lives Matter and others to browbeat American companies into atoning for their ‘original sin’ of greed and racism when they present their products and services to us. This is purely observational, but I do know a bit about advertising having owned an ad agency for six years.

We never used models in ads that didn’t represent the demographic our clients were trying to reach. One of our clients was a bank in the very proper and very White enclave of Greenwich, Connecticut. We cast actors that mirrored the physical and behavioral characteristics of a majority of the local population. At that time, the percentage of Blacks in that community was miniscule. The figure today is equally miniscule at 3.3% (also sourced from U.S. Census data). The average adjusted yearly gross income of its residents is around $650,000 in 2022. In defense of Greenwich, the town wasn’t anti-Black, it was just pro-wealth! But given the demographic makeup the town would have a target painted on its 'Welcome to Greenwich' sign for 'lack of racial diversity.'

Actually, Greenwich is the embodiment of the A Message to Garcia, that great essay from 1899 written by Elbert Hubbard which stresses the value of a distinctly industrious and mindful work ethic. (However I must admit, in Greenwich’s case there exists a fair amount of inherited trickle-down old money.) But back to advertising. Occasionally NPR surprises me with an article on their website that is worth reading. One such article appeared a couple years ago which referenced a Nielsen Study that indicated certain groups like women were under-represented. (And when I think about it, that may have gotten the ball rolling on this new ‘Pareto Principle’ business model.) 

These days, nearly every commercial features women of various ages and ethnic/racial backgrounds. To quote Virginia Slims: "You've come a long way, baby" (at least in the world of advertising).

Television is the ideologue’s dream. Back in 1974, the book Subliminal Seduction was published and it shook the very ground upon which corporate America and the ad industry stood. While many of its postulations like imbedded sales messages in ice cubes were a bit far-fetched, it made us realize that commercials were more than just simple sales pitches for bathtub cleanser or soda pop; they were vehicles for cultural persuasion and, if you will, indoctrination.

Fast forward to today. Admit it. You’ve noticed how many persons of color and alternative lifestylers are now the principals in the average 60-second TV ad, but you are too afraid to talk about it with your friends or neighbors lest you be labeled a racist, a homophobe, or some such thing. Truth is, we’re petrified to speak of race, and it pains me to say it, but former Attorney General Eric Holder was right when he said that the U.S. is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to (discussing) race relations. Our country’s younger workers aren’t afraid, though. Those in the corporate world have, apparently, convinced their bosses that it’s time to inject ‘social justice’ politics into company policy, and that to ignore the opportunity created by the re-invigorated Black movement would be considered exercising ‘White privilege.’

That's just one example of the changing workplace. Others include the self-imposed ‘no speech zone’ where anything that could be considered controversial or labeled sexist is verboten. The water cooler which used to be a gathering place for the exchange of a quick joke or a laugh has been replaced with an upscale coffee machine and some gluten-free pastries in the break room with signs that say, “Compliments on coworkers’ attire are a punishable offense: Personnel Dept.” (Sorry, Department of Human Resources).

America’s workplaces have, regrettably, transitioned away from being dynamic centers of independent thought and action to become new-age petri dishes and incubators for social change, and I for one am eternally grateful that my lunchbox and thermos are firmly packed away in my garage.

Stephan Helgesen is a retired career U.S. diplomat who lived and worked in 30 countries for 25 years during the Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and G.W. Bush Administrations. He is the author of twelve books, six of which are on American politics and has written over 1,300 articles on politics, economics and social trends. He operates a political news story aggregator website: He can be reached at:

Image: Free image, Pixabay license, no attribution required.

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