In a recent conversation with a group of students, we discussed which historical figures they would most like to dine with. It’s a question I’ve asked many young people over the years, and their choices have always been a mix of religious, political, media and TV figures. Names like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, St. Paul the Apostle, and Winston Churchill are mentioned regularly.
However, one group is still missing from these lists: business leaders. It makes me wonder why business is not seen as a noble calling in American society. Why don’t young people admire Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Sam Walton, Steve Jobs or other successful business leaders? I guess that makes some sense, given that capitalism has received a bad rap in recent years. In fact, recent polls often show that more young people prefer socialism to capitalism today. But I suspect something else is at stake. Business careers are seen as less noble and somehow reserved for foodies.
Young idealists and eager to make their country and the world a better place is nothing new. But when it comes to corporate jobs, today’s cultural narrative focuses almost exclusively on the negative: work-life balance, burnout, mental health issues, workplace hazards. and record number of people leaving their jobs. A new âanti-workâ movement even entirely rejects the idea of ââhaving a career.
Rather than dwell on the downsides of a business career, we should instead think about what free markets and capitalism have done to improve society and the human condition. Throughout the 20th century, has anyone had a more direct impact on the lives of Americans than companies like Ford Motor Company, Kraft Foods, Kellogg’s, Apple, Microsoft, and Coca-Cola? Last year brought life-saving vaccines to fight COVID-19 from companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and Pfizer. Who has made information or products more accessible to us than Google or brought a wider range of products to our doors than Amazon?
Over 40 years ago, I was moved by the remarks of Dean Russell, professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Russell believed that if young men and women were serious about helping society, they should give up careers in the nonprofit sector and government and go into business – whether building and selling homes. affordable, to make better refrigerators at prices consumers want to pay, or to do the same with cars, televisions and a myriad of other products. Russell’s theory was that in business, both sides of the equation win. Consumers get a better product at lower prices and the manufacturer makes a profit. Society is therefore healthier, richer and more satisfied.
An added benefit of this most basic form of capitalism is that the profits can be used as the manufacturer wishes. They can be reinvested in a business, distributed to shareholders, or used to advance the many philanthropic needs around the world. Think about the impact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lilly Foundation, and the various Koch Foundations have had on society in the United States and around the world. The arts, education, medical research, entrepreneurial activities and much more have been funded with large profits from successful businesses.
Suzanne Clark, President and CEO of the United States Chamber of Commerce, recently told students at my organization, The Fund for American Studies, that business is a noble calling. She argued that young people are too often told that they have to be a doctor, scientist, community leader or educator if they are to truly make a difference or change the world. There is nothing wrong with these professions – in fact, they are noble in themselves – but think about what a job creator means to a family, their community and society: food on the table, financial security, access to health care, dignity, self-determination and hope.
Ms Clark also questioned whether high schools, colleges and universities fail students in allowing them to graduate without understanding how free markets and capitalism work and how they improve society and the human condition. Is this lack of understanding a by-product of dysfunctional education systems? Is this the reason why students don’t see a career in business as a noble pursuit?
Russell and Mrs. Clark are right. As the young people return home for the holidays to talk with their families and plan for their future, it would be good for all of us to remember the positive aspects of a successful business career. Business leaders may not be invited to hypothetical Michelin-starred student dinners, but these individual innovators are propelling our society to a more prosperous future.
â¢ Roger Ream is the President of the Fund for American Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that works with high school and college students to promote free market principles, limited government, and honorable leadership.