The Americans’ Views on Business Survey was written by Jennifer Tonti, Managing Director of Survey Research & Insights.
As 2022 draws to a close, Americans are faced with a number of uncomfortable economic challenges, including fears over job security and layoffs, stubbornly high inflation, a looming recession, and a political climate rife with rancor and division. Suddenly, the already precarious path to prosperity for tens of millions of people seems even more out of reach.
Such is the backdrop to our Annual Survey on the Priorities of the Public, in which we poll Americans about their Views on Business – specifically, whether they think America’s largest companies are moving toward creating a more just economy and society. Since 2015, JUST Capital has surveyed more than 160,000 Americans on a fully representative basis. This survey not only gives us unique and critically important insights into how Americans think about business today, it also gives us a pulse on their hopes and fears, and – when viewed in the context of our previous seven years’ of polling – how each have shifted in time.
In our 2022 Issues Report –The People’s Priorities we found that that across every demographic group, whether political affiliation, race, gender, age, or income group, Americans are united in wanting companies to prioritize Workers as the most important stakeholder and Paying a fair, living wage as the most important business Issue today.
In this companion survey, we find that Americans consistently believe that companies remain firmly wedded to the shareholder primacy model and that there continues to be a basic mismatch between what the public wants companies to prioritize (their workers) and what they perceive companies are actually prioritizing (their shareholders).
We also find that perceptions on whether capitalism is working for the average American plummeted 10 percentage points this year, with a stark difference between those who think capitalism is working (high-income workers, older Americans, Conservatives), and those who do not think capitalism is working (lower-income and hourly workers, Black and Hispanic Americans, younger Americans, and Liberals).
As Edelman saw in its new study, “The Changing Role of the Corporation in Society,” Americans believe businesses and CEOs have a role to play in addressing societal issues, agreeing most when it comes to tackling issues like gender equity in the workplace (equal pay), income inequality, and advancing racial equity. CEOs may experience more pushback when taking a stand to address issues like protecting LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive rights, and climate change, as the political polarization around those issues is high.
Despite an uptick in positive impressions during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic that companies were stepping up to take care of stakeholders, Americans are now less likely to think companies are following through. They also expect business to talk less and act more. The good news: 81% of Americans believe that business can be a powerful force of societal change and 84% believe people can be effective when they act together to try to change companies’ behaviors. Americans are also willing to support change and help companies transition toward a just economy by paying more for just products and even accepting less pay to work for just companies.
In this year’s survey, we unpack these trends in detail, seeking to understand what matters most to Americans today, against the backdrop of our shifting economic and societal climate, and what corporate leaders should prioritize to live up to the expectations of the public. Let’s take a deeper look at the data.
More than two in three Americans (68%) say that “our current form of capitalism is not working for the average American,” a 10-point increase in negative sentiment from just one year ago. In its recent survey on how Americans perceive capitalism, Pew Research similarly finds modest declines.
In a recent talk, PayPal CEO Dan Schulman discussed why capitalism needs an upgrade, warning, “To many people who are left out of the system, who struggle to make ends meet and don’t believe in the American dream anymore, they tend to radicalize to the far left or far right. So how do we strengthen our democracy by thinking more broadly?”
When we look across demographic breaks, we find substantial differences in Americans’ opinions of whether capitalism is working. Lower-income and hourly workers, Black and Hispanic Americans, temp workers, younger Americans, and Liberals are all far less likely to agree that “our current form of capitalism works for the average American” than white Americans, older Americans, those in high income households, and Conservatives.
Americans agree that companies are on the wrong path, with just 20% agreeing that they’re heading in the right direction – a downward trend from a high of 30% in 2018. What’s more, over half of Americans (51%) now say companies are headed in the wrong direction, a steady trend upward, and a 13 percentage point increase, since 2018.
With regard to just business behavior specifically, more Americans (58%) say that companies are very or somewhat just than say they are not very or not at all just – however, that number is down from a high of 66% in 2021.
When we ask the public whether they think companies are becoming more or less just over time, even though a plurality say that they have stayed about the same, the percentage 0f respondents who say companies are becoming less just has grown in the past year, from 26% in 2021 to 31% in 2022.
The proportion of Americans who trust versus distrust large U.S. companies had been roughly the same over the past few years, but in 2022 that changed, with more Americans now saying that they distrust companies (50%) than trust them (45%).
We see these findings further confirmed by a new question we asked this year – if people trust CEOs to do right by their employees – and only about one in three agreed that they “trust CEOs to look out for the interests of their workers.”
A key question in our Americans’ Views on Business survey asks the public’s thoughts about which stakeholder – shareholders, customers, or workers – they think companies prioritize most. For six years running, and by a significant but varied margin, half of Americans say that shareholders are the top priority in companies’ eyes, versus 31% who say workers and 19% who say customers. When comparing these responses to what the public said in our Annual Survey six years ago, we see two major changes over time.
First, while the percentage who say employees are the top priority has grown substantially, from 9% to 31%, the uptick in this view has now waned since 2020. And second, while the degree to which the public believes shareholders are the top priority has diminished – from 69% in 2017 to 50% in 2022 – it has actually risen since the challenges of 2020. Overall, this paints a picture of an opportunity perhaps lost – or at least not fully captured – by companies to show they are placing workers’ interests at least on par with shareholders’.
In keeping with these findings, the public also agrees that companies are not living up to their commitments to take action on critical societal challenges. In the two years since the Business Roundtable announced a movement away from shareholder primacy, our data show that the public remains skeptical on whether America’s largest companies are actually following through on their commitments to a stakeholder model, with 86% agreeing that companies “often hide behind public declarations of support for stakeholders but don’t walk the walk.”
The following chart shows that the public believes that companies have the most positive impact on their shareholders (75%) at a greater margin than other stakeholders, including customers (65%), the health & safety of their workforce (64%), quality jobs (56%), and local communities (55%).
Far fewer say that the environment and low-wage workers are positively impacted by the behavior of large companies. Compare the one in three Americans who say companies have a positive impact on the “financial well-being of their lowest-paid workers” to nearly twice as many who say “their shareholders” in the chart above.
Looking at positive impact measures over time, the public’s perspective is that companies are moving in the wrong direction. For example, the percentage who say companies have a positive impact on society overall has fallen from a high of 58% in 2018 to just 49% of Americans in 2022.
There are similar dips in the percentage of Americans who say companies have a positive impact on the quality of U.S. jobs and the well-being of local communities.
Yet the percentage who say companies have a positive impact on shareholders is substantially higher, and even increases slightly over the past five years.
Workers are the engine of a company, and from our recent survey on workers and wages, it is clear that Americans firmly believe that companies that invest in their workers by paying a living wage are more competitive in their industries, better for the economy overall, and more profitable in the long term. In this survey, we find that Americans again agree that the focus of a just company should be its workforce, with majorities agreeing with the following statements:
What’s more, there is remarkable consensus on these issues when looking across political divides, suggesting that, despite sentiment that the right and left are polarized when it comes to issues like a living wage or even forms of collective bargaining, liberals and conservatives are more aligned than we might think.
To protect workers’ right to fair treatment, almost nine in 10 say that workers should have the right to collectively bargain for pay and other protections. This strong agreement on collective bargaining tracks with public pollster Gallup, which finds that Americans’ approval of labor unions is at its highest point since 1965.
What’s more, we find that support for unionization of the workforce is consistent across all political ideologies. Consider what Amazon union leader Chris Smalls said at a hearing on Amazon’s labor practices in May of 2022:
Companies looking to stave off unionization trends should assess their workers’ financial wellness to ensure all employees are able to make ends meet. In this survey we heard that more than 80% agree that companies need to pay their lowest-paid workers a living wage – something we’ve seen reinforced with strong agreement from the public in our survey on workers and wages, which found that 84% agree that large companies should pay employees enough to make ends meet. Our 2022 People’s Priorities Survey also echoed this sentiment, with “Paying a fair, living wage” as the #1 Issue for the public, gaining more than 20 percentage points in importance over the last two years.
Inflation and an impending recession are already impacting the lives and pocketbooks of most Americans, meanwhile the lowest-wage workers in the U.S. unfortunately bear the brunt when wages don’t keep up with inflation.
In an effort to better understand the state of corporate America when it comes to paying a living wage, JUST Capital has also refined its measurement of this issue for our upcoming 2023 Rankings. Among our initial findings? About half of Russell 1000 employees do not make a family-sustaining living wage.
With job quits rates hovering at about 4 million between August 2021 and August 2022, the phenomenon alternately called The Great Resignation and The Great Reassessment could flourish. To that end, a large majority of Americans think this was a key moment for worker power: 79% agree that The Great Resignation is an opportunity to hit the reset button and focus on workers.
Finally, when it comes to a company’s profits, Americans say that workers are not getting their fair share of the pie: 84% agree that companies don’t share enough of their success with their workers. With profits surging 35% last year, 2021 was the most profitable year for American corporations since 1950. And while employee compensation rose 11%, the so-called labor share of national income – the portion that’s paid out as wages and salaries – fell back to pre-pandemic levels. It’s clear that American workers aren’t sharing in the prosperity they are helping companies create.
In recent years, CEOs have found themselves in the position of needing to speak out on both critical and contentious issues, and the landscape is becoming more challenging to navigate as more politicians attempt to bring companies into culture war issues as the election cycle heats up. To help corporate leaders understand public expectations during these tumultuous times, we’ve asked Americans each year for the last five years if they believe the CEOs of large companies have a responsibility to take a stand on important societal issues. This year, two-thirds of Americans overall – a number that has remained relatively stable in our years of polling – believe CEOs of large companies have a responsibility to take a stand.
There are, however, significant differences in the degree of agreement when looking at this question across political breaks: with far fewer Conservatives agreeing CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand (44%) compared to their Liberal (81%) or Moderate (75%) peers.
Of the almost two-thirds who say that CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand, another two-thirds of that group says they should do so no matter the issue, rather than focusing solely on issues that directly impact their business.
With a majority of Americans saying that CEOs should take a stand on issues, the question then becomes which societal issues should they address. In response to this year’s survey, a substantial proportion of the public says corporate leadership has a role to play in addressing all of the following issues, with income inequality and gender and racial equity receiving the highest levels of support (77% or more).
And although majorities say CEOs have a role to play in these issues, there is less consensus when looking across political breaks, with Conservatives less in support of CEOs taking a stand on these specific issues than their Moderate or Liberal counterparts. There is particularly low support from Conservatives when it comes to LGBTQ rights, women’s reproductive rights, and climate change (45% or less).
However, for the question of upholding our democracy – an issue that has become increasingly politically divisive – majorities of all three political ideologies agree that CEOs have a role to play in protecting both democracy and voting rights. Those numbers are bolstered by the 72% of Americans who say corporate America has a responsibility to protect the democratic process by promoting free and fair elections.
Positive assessments of corporate behavior are also informed by the public’s views on how companies have weathered recent events, including the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, half of Americans say companies have shown leadership throughout the pandemic, down from a high last year of 54%.
When we look at another pressing social issue – advancing racial equity – a higher percentage (60%) of Americans say companies are doing well demonstrating a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, a number that has stayed steady over the two years that we’ve tracked views on this issue.
Still, there is ample room to improve: almost half (47%) of Americans agree that companies are not doing enough today to hire and promote Black Americans in the workforce. That number rises to 83% among Black Americans.
Action on these issues have lasting impact for the public, with a large majority of Americans saying they will remember the companies that took missteps in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic (68%) as well as those that took missteps on issues related to racial injustice (67%).
The good news? Americans are willing to support change and help companies transition to a just economy. We asked Americans to tell us whether they would take positive action in supporting companies that are more just, and two-thirds or more said that they would either accept less pay in a new job at a just company, and/or pay more for a product made or sold by a just company.
This comes at no surprise when we see that a whopping 84% of Americans believe that their own actions can shape the future: a level double-digits higher than when we first asked this question in 2017 (71%).
That Americans have strong opinions about large U.S. companies may be attributable to the degree to which the public is informed about corporate activities and behavior (in 2022, 23% say they are Informed or Very Informed, up from 18% in 2020).
While this year’s Americans’ Views on Business survey shows an overall less optimistic perspective on how companies are faring in transitioning from shareholder primacy toward a more just and equitable economy, our 2022 Issues Report – The People’s Priorities and full slate of polling reports from the last year, provide a clear, consistent, and unified message from Americans about how to turn the tide, and that is to put workers at the heart of business strategy.
For companies that are looking for solutions to everything from political polarization to the rise in unionization, or losing talent to competitors, the answers lie in listening to the voice of the public, and most importantly, to your workers. They will tell you, as they’ve told us for the last seven years, to focus on paying a fair, living wage, protecting their health and safety, supporting their development through training and upward mobility, providing good benefits and work-life balance, and more. The pandemic catalyzed a fundamental shift in expectations for workers, with many reevaluating what’s most important to them.
As we discussed in a recent Fortune editorial with the Ford Foundation, “Now is the time for employers to listen to their workforce and collectively ensure our economy delivers on the promise of the American Dream for everyone.” Business leaders are increasingly faced with complex economic, social, and political headwinds, but investing in workers is a powerful North Star to use to chart the path forward.
For additional resources on where to get started, visit:
We conducted this survey online with a probability-based sample attained through the exhaustive statistical sampling methods employed by SSRS. The SSRS Opinion Panel is a nationally representative probability-based web panel, and findings are generalizable to the general adult population.
The full survey was conducted from June 22 to July 11, 2022 among a general population sample of 3,002 English- and Spanish-speaking U.S. adults 18+ years of age, with an oversample of 540 Hispanic and 460 non-Hispanic Black respondents. Panelists were sent an email invitation to take the survey online as well as up to eight reminder emails throughout the field period. The survey program was optimized so that respondents could complete it using a desktop or laptop computer as well as a mobile device. In total, 1,063 respondents completed the survey on a computer and 1,939 completed it on a mobile device.
The margin of error is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level. Results were weighted to U.S. Census parameters for age, gender, education, race/Hispanic ethnicity, and Census Division to ensure representativeness of the U.S. population. All margins of error include “design effects” to adjust for the effects of weighting.
Have questions about our research and rankings? We want to hear from you!