The Next America: How the 2012 Election Will Shape Tomorrow’s Workforce


(Haraz N. Ghanbari – AP)

The times they a’changin, even if you are not ready.

While Mitt Romney did get 47% of the vote, it’s the other 53% of the electorate that showed up that is a huge part of the story.  In his post-election coverage, The New Yorker’s editor Hendrik Hertzberg wrote, “Nearly as pleasing as Obama’s surprisingly easy reelection – and, to me at least, rather more surprising – was the electorate’s nearly across –the-board embrace of cultural and social liberalism and, implicitly, of secularism.

This America showed up to vote in jaw-dropping pluralities that even the most hardened skeptic (well most) can’t deny. The headliner percentages for African-Americans (95%) Latinos (75%) Asian-Americans (75%) and young people (between the ages of 18 and 29) made up a bigger share of the electorate (to many an analyst’s surprise) than they have in past elections, with a 19% margin of support for the President.

Predicted, but still stunning, was the President’s support from woman, and in particular, single women.   While women turned out in the same numbers as 2008 (54% of the electorate) the gender gap rose from 12% to 18% in this election.  Of that number, two-thirds of single women voted for Obama.  Interestingly, single people are now the majority in 15 states.   One striking demographic shift in the crucial women’s vote is that these women are no longer white, married middle class suburbanites but a broad coalition of unmarried women, urban-dwellers, people of color and those under the age of 30.

Social issues reflecting the values of these voters also won big in this election. Fourstates, Washington, Minnesota, Maryland and Maine voted for marriage equality and two states, Colorado and Washington voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (WI) will serve as the first openly gay member of the U.S. Senate and self-described bisexual candidate, Krysten Sinema from Arizona won a congressional seat. Though geography and politics divide support for these issues, the historic reversal of recent opposition to these measures and candidates is notable.

Changing cultural values and demographics are an undeniable factor in the recent election, and raise important questions about how they will affect the workplace of the not so distant future?  How much of the 2012 vote will translate into policy changes is  an open question, but surely  this cultural and demographic tsunami comes with expectations that will shape how we work.

These Voters Want “Things

Fox Channel host Bill O’Reilly made headlines with his post-election comments that Obama’s election reflected that “the demographics are changing, and it’s not a traditional America anymore.” Pointing to Obama’s support among African-Americans, Hispanics and women, he noted they voted for him because they want “stuff.”

O’Reilly’s nebulous response notwithstanding, all voters and employees want stuff.The question is what stuff will the new electorate want?  Depending on what stuffthey get, the spillover to the workplace is inevitable and in some cases the stuff they get will reshape the landscape of work.

Let’s look at a few examples:

The Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. the ACA or Obamacare)

“Obamacare” is one piece of the stuff that the winning electorate already has in established law. In fact, some analysts would argue that the 2012 election was a mandate to continue Obamacare since Mr. Romney proposed to repeal it on his first day in office.  Signed into law in 2010, the ACA is the most significant overhaul in U.S. healthcare regulations since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

At this time, 48.6 million Americans have no health insurance (that’s down by 1.3 million since the passage of the law, largely due to a provision of the ACA that took effect in 2011 allowing parents to continue to cover children under 26 on their health plans).

Once the ACA is fully implemented in 2014 and insurance coverage is mandated (through a number of measures) companies employing 50 or more people but not offering health insurance will be required to provide it and will pay a shared responsibility if the government has to subsidize the coverage. Very small businesses will be able to get subsidies if they buy insurance through one of the health exchanges being established in every state.

Although some noisy high-profile CEO’s like pizza-chain Papa John’s John Schnatter have threatened to lay off employees or freeze hiring rather than raising prices (or lowering their own compensation), most business analysts agree the law is here to stay and it’s time to begin planning for compliance.  Implementation at this scale is massive and there is much speculation about how companies will handle the mandate.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that between 4 and 6 millions fewer people could lose their coverage through employers under the law. Some companies may decide it is cheaper to drop coverage for their workers and give them the money to purchase insurance through state health exchanges.  Some analysts believe that companies, especially within certain industries such as hospitality or food service, may attempt to move towards increasing their pool of part-time workers to evade the mandate.

It’s too soon to understand how the effects of the ACA will impact the business bottom line but it’s not too soon to begin to imagine a healthier and more robust workforce that will reap significant benefits for the entire populace and economy. Given that the U.S. is the only major industrialized country (other than Turkey or Mexico) that doesn’t offer universal health care but spends more per capita than any other nation on health costs, expect that the ACA will have a major influence on all American workplaces.

Immigration Reform

Even one year ago, comprehensive immigration reform legislation seemed impossible but now seems plausible given the powerful voice of Hispanics in the 2012 election.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that these reforms could add over $1.5 trillion to the economy over ten years, or about 0.84% to GDP.  These calculations are based partly on the outcomes of the 1986 Reagan Amnesty reforms which gave legal status to about 3 million undocumented individuals.  The CAP believes that giving 11.3 undocumented immigrants a route to citizenship could increase their collective earning power by as much as 36 billion a year. That money would funnel back into the economy and create more demand and jobs.

Speaking after President’s Obama’s order earlier this year to halt deportation for younger undocumented immigrants, Latina activist Lorella Praeli, who herself is an undocumented immigrant and college graduate stated, “I would find it incredibly difficult, politically, for any future president of the United States, to say, “I’m going to take this away from people,” because I think we’ve shown America the contributions that we make. And we’re going to be able to continue in a very different way to contribute with now being able to enter the job market. And it would be difficult for someone to say, “I’m just going to take 800,000 people’s work permits. I think we’re unstoppable.”

Women’s Rights

Women spoke their preferences loudly in the 2012 voting booth. A range of issues, favored by the majority of women voters this year, will have both direct and indirect impact on workplaces issues affecting all workers.  Pay equity will likely resurface as a post-election issue, and the Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation that was twice introduced and rejected in the Congress will likely find new support.

The Act would expand the scope of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Fair Labor Standards and address the inexcusable issue of male-female income disparity in the U.S.  Despite the fact that women now make up 46.6% of the American workforce they still earn only 77.4% of men’s earnings in 2010.

Other important issues impacting women and affecting their role as workers will be the gains they realize from gender parity ratings under Obamacare, as well as many free preventive health care benefits and maternity benefits offered in the plan. This election also insured that women’s reproductive rights will stay intact under this administration. It is likely that the President will appoint at least one, if not two Supreme Court judges, during his tenure and these appointments will likely be to judges favoring women’s rights to choice, as well as the preservation of laws protecting them from gender discrimination

According to Think Progress, for the women who do not identify as heterosexual, this election marks an important step forward for LGBT equality.  Obama is the first U.S. President in office to endorse marriage equality and may enact policies in his second term to extend legal rights and protections to parents and spouses that are not part of the “traditional” family structures.

The LGBT communities in general may find that employers may be mandated by new laws – and cultural pressure – to expand their own policies and practices to embrace the new electoral mandates and expectations.

It’s also safe to assume that the expansion of women’s representation in the United States Congress will result in an increase of legislation that benefits women’s economic and social standing in the workplace – and beyond.

Game Changer?

The cynics will jeer but it’s possible that this election will be seen in hindsight as agame changer for the workplace. Every week dozens of articles are written about the death of modern management and the transformation that must take place in the ranks of leadership and organizational structure.

To be sure, there will be resistance and attempts at obstruction.

In his Forbes article, Don’t Diss the Paradigm Shift, It’s Happening, Steve Denning discusses scientist’s Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the phases of paradigm shifts and the parallels to modern management.  According to Denning, “The change in the management paradigm has been long in the making. It is not some fad that was cooked up last night and that will evaporate tomorrow. It has been gathering momentum around the world for several decades. It has deep roots in Europe, in Asia, and in the Americas.   There is now a whole body of knowledge about how this works and why this works. The shift entails a different way of treating people: a shift from a world in which people are manipulated as things (resources, eyeballs, demand) to a world in which people are interacted with as human beings.”

The realities are on the table – an empowered, diverse electorate which may translate into new demands in the workplace, one and possibly two (Obamacare and immigration reform) of the most sweeping legislative mandates in over a generation, a slow-growth (for now) economy, the highest corporate profits and capital reserves in nearly two decades, looming demands to address climate change and continuous technological transformation.

Our greatest enemy might be the drawers full of destructive beliefs that keep us mired in yesterday. As Denning points out, The older paradigm is difficult to displace precisely because it has been shown to work in solving problems in the past.

The balance of power is shifting.  Perhaps it tipped a bit on November 6, 2012. One thing is certain, many of the employees that emerge from this “New America” won’t all be signing up for the old paradigm.

They will want different stuff.

As always, I appreciate your comments, subscriptions, tweets, shares and likes.  

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication

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