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Sweeping generational changes have pressured CEOs to take up political activism

America's CEOs need policies on the coming verdict in the Minneapolis police trial; the human rights dimensions of next year's World Cup in Qatar and Winter Olympics in Beijing; and voting-access bills — all different — moving through statehouses around the country.

Why it matters: As part of a generational change that has left many corporations on the defensive, CEOs are being pressured by younger workers and potential recruits — plus shareholders and customers — to take stands on issues they had always avoided. This includes the divisive issues of race, guns, climate change and LGBTQ rights.

This is partly opportunity — and mostly necessity:

  • People have lost trust in government, the media and other institutions. Employers have a huge opening to fill the vacuum. This year's Edelman Trust Barometer, polling released in January, found that business is the only institution that's now perceived as being ethical and competent enough to solve the world's problems.
  • But companies have little choice: Younger workers and applicants now insist that employers articulate their values. Previous generations were more obsessed with salaries, perks and career paths.
  • The Business Roundtable, an organization of America's top CEOs, last year released a detailed platform on police reform. Josh Bolten, the group's president and CEO, said executives now recognize that painful calls on tough issues are a permanent part of the job: "It's what I do."
  • In 2019, the BRT redefined the purpose of a corporation from immediate profitability for shareholders, to a broader lens that includes customers, employers, suppliers and communities.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of Yale School of Management, who's in constant communication with the world's top CEOs (he took several calls this week from Augusta), told me several other factors are forcing business leaders to speak up:

  • President Trump took stands on trade, immigration and isolations that are antithetical to the interests of many American business giants: "Businesses now are in a daily state of adolescence — trying to find themselves, because they're not defined by either party."
  • The decoupling of America is bad for business. "CEOs want social harmony," Sonnenfeld told me from a board meeting in Miami's South Beach. "Workers pointing fingers, and angry shareholders, make their jobs harder."
  • CEOs can no longer resort to an avoidance strategy: "The middle ground is no longer feasible for anybody. Silence means acquiescence, which means complicity."

What's next: There's one issue where CEOs still want to defer to Washington — China. Top execs tell me confronting Beijing on human rights is too fraught and costly of an issue for global companies to take the lead.

This story first appeared in a special Megatrends Edition of Axios AM.

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