Economy & Business

There’s a Powerful Non-Political Reason for Workplace Intolerance and Ideological Uniformity

Nachiket Patel and Chitra Pathak exit their Valentine’s Day wedding at the top of the Empire State Building in N.Y., February 14, 2019. (Brendan McDermid/REUTERS)
When workplaces become communities, like gathers with like.

When conservatives look at increasing political uniformity and disturbing levels of intolerance in significant American industries, we often immediately identify the reason as ideological. Younger workers in particular are increasingly radical, and those radical millennials cannot abide dissent. They are easily “triggered” by disagreement, and they’re emotionally fragile — especially as compared with previous American generations.

The actual terminations are, thankfully, relatively rare. But the ideological uniformity is very real, and the concern amongst the ideological minority is pervasive. Talk to conservatives in Silicon Valley or in other progressive-dominated enclaves, and they’ll tell you they often agonize over when and how to speak about their beliefs. Many choose to remain almost entirely silent even as their more progressive colleagues speak freely and openly about their deepest beliefs.

Yes, radical political ideologies certainly do matter, and as I’ve written at length (including yesterday), any ideology that doesn’t allow for citizens who possess different faiths and different viewpoints to work side by side with common respect and basic decency is fundamentally flawed. But what if we’re dealing with something far deeper than a political fight? What if we’re dealing with an inevitable side effect of sweeping cultural changes that will be extraordinarily difficult to reverse so long as those trends continue?

In short, in a world that increasingly delays marriage and elevates workplace relationships — including by creating communal spaces where workers don’t just work together, they eat together, work out together, and sometimes even spend recreational time together — won’t workplace relationships start to look less collegial and more familial? In other words, are colleagues still mainly colleagues, or are they also the source of our social circle and our core community? And if they are, won’t that social network look less like the traditional workplace and more like the self-selected communities of friends, families, and civic associations?

I’ve been thinking about this possibility for a while — and discussing it with thoughtful leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere — but I decided to put pen to paper after reading an interesting Atlantic/PRRI study on the “fate of pluralism in a divided nation.” As Emma Green wrote today, while solid majorities of Americans interact with a person of a different faith, race, or party at least once a week, “significant minorities” do not. A full 39 percent of Americans interact with a person from a different party only a “few times a year” or “seldom or never.” For religion and race, the numbers are 38 and 35 percent, respectively.

Those numbers are troubling on their own, but what about the majority who do interact with people of different backgrounds? Where is that interaction? As Green writes, “Even those Americans who regularly encounter political diversity don’t necessarily choose it.” Most people interact with people of different faiths or parties at work. When the interactions get more voluntary, they’re of course more exclusive. A minority of Americans interact with people of different parties or faiths in friendship circles, an even smaller minority in families, and much smaller minorities in civic organizations, schools, and churches.

All of this makes sense. And there is nothing inherently wrong with the tendency to sort your friendships, romantic relationships, and civic associations according to common values and common goals. There’s a lot right about it, in fact. It builds close bonds and makes it possible for people working together to achieve rather extraordinary things.

But let’s go back to the modern workplace — especially in the coastal, highly educated spheres most marked by ideological uniformity. What will you notice? Well, first, they’re often concentrated in the areas of the country and in the demographics where marriage is most delayed. The average age of first marriage for college graduates is almost 30. For those with more education, the age is 31. Next, many of these same folks are working long hours, far from home, and often in industries and workplaces that do their best to build not only a sense of community but also a sense of shared mission.

When I was a young lawyer and looking to work at a Manhattan law firm, a friend said, “Beware the firms with their own cafeterias. They’re so convenient, you’ll be tempted to stay at work too long.” He knew I had a new wife, and he knew that while I was ready to work long hours, I also wanted to prioritize my marriage. But now, if an elite new workplace campus just has good food, it’s lagging behind. And there is a different priority in your social life when there is no wife or husband waiting for you at home — much less if there are no children who can’t wait to see their dad.

The end result is that large numbers of single people work long (often brutally long) hours towards a common goal (one that is often framed in the most idealistic of terms) — often away from the homes and communities of their childhoods — and for companies that intentionally try to create specific, quasi-familial cultures with missions that explicitly transcend “mere” profit-making.

Under these circumstances, is it any wonder that like wants to work with like? In this reality, modern identity politics — which often places great emphasis on ameliorating the psychological and emotional harms of perceived injustice — is a perfect match for a community that starts to naturally, in a quite human fashion, prize emotional well-being and friendships as a necessary part of the work experience.

Moreover, this trend is powerfully self-reinforcing. If the workplace is becoming the new family, how many people want to be the crazy uncle at the Thanksgiving table? While many people may theoretically love the work (or the financial rewards), to walk into a specific and carefully cultivated “community” knowing that you’re an outsider is a hard thing to do. It’s one reason why academics see so few clearly conservative CVs. If you’re talented enough to have multiple options, most people choose workplaces where they know they’ll be welcomed.

Most Americans, to be clear, don’t work in these kinds of workplaces. Many millions of Americans work to live. They don’t live to work. When the work day is over, and when they walk in the door and hug their spouse and children, that’s when they see their real life as beginning. But at the elite levels, where ideological intolerance is most pervasive, work is often a calling — an utterly inseparable component of your identity — and don’t we want to pursue our callings with people we like? Isn’t it hard when families disagree?

The more one looks at our nation’s political challenges, the more one sees culture, and the more one sees human nature. Ideological uniformity can in part be explained by the most human of traits. All other things being equal, people like to work with their friends.

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David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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