Diverse, Not Divided

The workplace has become America's melting pot, and that exposure to difference and the tolerance is a powerful economic force

By Christopher Farrell

We're a hopelessly divided nation, right? Red states vs. blue. Al Franken vs. Rush Limbaugh. Hollywood vs. Nashville. Massachusetts allows same-sex couples to marry. Missouri voters amended its state constitution to prevent gay marriage. A Presidential election too close to call.

Yet the popular belief that the nation is split between right-wingers and bleeding hearts -- at least on domestic affairs -- is an exaggeration at best. It's safe to say that for the majority of society, the virulently partisan culture wars barely exist. A considerable body of social-science research over the past decade by such academics as political scientist Alan Wolfe of Boston College, Senior Fellow Morris Fiorina of the Hoover Institution, and sociologist Paul DiMaggio of Princeton University suggests that Americans are less polarized than they were three decades ago.


  The data shows voters hovering around a tolerant middle, sharing relatively similar views and nuanced disagreements -- not the stuff of Crossfire-type shouting matches -- on everything from gun control to crime to gender roles to homosexuality to environmentalism. Indeed, abortion is the big exception to the overall trend toward greater convergence.

Certainly, race relations are better than they were in previous decades. Rates of intermarriage between ethnic groups have never been higher. The labor-force participation rate of women is some 60%. In 1960, it was under 40%. Many social movements spawned during the turbulent 1960s, from civil rights for African Americans and other minorities, to opening the workplace to women, have quietly triumphed over recent decades.

Why the widespread agreement on so many supposedly divisive issues? Look around your office or factory floor, and there's your answer. The workplace, the most powerful institution in a modern capitalist economy, is the great melting pot in America today. Many of us spend more time with colleagues than with family or friends. And what matters at work is whether you are a competent, trustworthy colleague, not your sexual orientation or gender. The bias toward meritocracy, the belief that equality of opportunity improves the bottom line, shapes the daily rhythms and strategic initiatives of companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations.


  Politicians without a significant challenger in the coming election (most of the gerrymandered Congress) can take extreme positions on gay marriage or homosexuality. But there's no doubt that discrimination against gays is out in Corporate America. Just ask Wal-Mart (WMT ), the nation's largest private employer and perhaps the most powerful symbol of Middle America. It has joined the majority of the nation's largest companies by including sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policies. Gender discrimination is a no-no, too, and the same goes for race.

These convergent values aren't happening because of corporate good intentions, although that is often an underappreciated motivation in a cynical age. No, competition is the driving force. That's why the pressure toward the continued triumph of modern liberalism won't fade away with time. Economists have documented how creativity has become increasingly important in our economy, especially with the spread of manufacturing techniques and service occupations to the developing world. The market value of creative people in everything from high-tech computer science to machine-tool assembly to devising financial plans for an aging baby boomer has gone up in recent decades. More and more companies are eager to employ well-educated, inventive workers.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Carnegie Mellon economist Professor Richard Florida makes a convincing case that creative occupations are growing and to successfully compete, companies and regions need to embrace diversity -- immigrants, gays, bohemians, and other minorities. The social philosopher Jane Jacobs observed that great cities thrived because they were places that welcomed ambitious, bright people from all walks of life and backgrounds and allowed them to turn their energy and insights into new products and services. Similarly, social scientists from a number of disciplines have documented that creative people prefer working in an environment that celebrates difference and risk-taking. A diverse workforce increases the odds of employees coming up with innovative ideas that are commercially profitable. The payoff: better jobs and sustained economic growth.


  Research by Florida and demographer Gary Gates of the Urban Institute, for instance, finds that centers of tech-based business growth tend to have the highest concentrations of gays while major areas with few gay couples are slow to-no-growth areas. Similarly, with women attending college in higher numbers and closing the gap in almost every advanced degree, senior management is committing organizational suicide by excluding women from the corporate meritocracy. It's a virtuous cycle: Diversity is good for creativity and creativity encourages more diversity. Both are good for the profit-and-loss statement.

Now, I'm no Pollyanna. There are many problems in the workplace. Just ask the women professionals at Morgan Stanley (MWD ). And race remains a powerful barrier to opportunity in Corporate America. Still, the workplace -- with its incentives and rewards -- is why, when it comes to the great social, political, and economic issues of the past 30 years, we're all learning to find common ground. Our standard of living depends on it.

Farrell is contributing economics editor for BusinessWeek. His Sound Money radio commentaries are broadcast over Minnesota Public Radio on Saturdays in nearly 200 markets nationwide. Follow his Sound Money column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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