Issue #3: Money and the Future of Belonging

"You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great." — Maya Angelou

This weekend I kicked off a dinner series that I’ve semi-jokingly called Winner Winner Chicken Dinner. I roast a chicken and host a potluck dinner at my home. I invite some women friends and friends of friends to talk about the beliefs, rituals and aspirations around topics that we don't have many safe spaces to talk about. The first one explored money. Other topics I’m exploring include spirituality, boundaries, and failure.

Our dinner conversation revolved around how we have all come to terms in some way with difficult emotions about and around money while other more deeply rooted feelings still linger.

My mother impressed upon me the idea that it is especially important for women to have f*ck you money: basically the financial capability to walk away from people and situations which do not serve you. This belief comes with some healthy rituals: I opened a mutual fund at 16. It also comes with some less healthy rituals: I generally don’t treat myself to splurges because I feel guilty for not spending for “good” reasons.

For this reason, I’ve got money on my mind this week. I’m examining all the ways money fuels belonging and the ways in which we lack money, spend money, earn money, owe money and invest money are changing as we look at possible futures and imagine the impact on belonging.

There’s no shortage of ways to spend on splurges: clothing, electronics, entertainment, games, and more. And that’s why it may be counterintuitive to learn that more Americans went to the library last year than to the movies according to a recent Gallup poll. But that makes sense in a world with largely flat wages, ever escalating living expenses like rent and health care, and widening wealth inequality that divides Americans into haves and have nots based on their tax bracket. As the percentage of Americans with financial struggles continues to grow, demand for free or affordable high-quality, engaging sources of entertainment, knowledge and community will grow.

Other groups are also paying the price when they don’t belong to the majority. African Americans are over-represented among Americans experiencing homelessness (13 percent of the overall population vs. 40 percent of homeless Americans in a congressional report). Poverty is a strong risk factor for homelessness, and African Americans are also over-represented in populations experiencing poverty.

A recent controversy emerged on Twitter when software engineer and entrepreneur David Heinemeier Hansson tweeted complaints about the AppleCard. Even though she had a higher credit score than him, he had a much higher credit limit than her. The conversation highlighted something researchers have vocalized for years: encoding bias in artificial intelligence and machine learning has real world implications like financially handicapping half of the population. Recent research has demonstrated another counterintuitive result. To foster more equitable gender financial inclusion, financial institutions should abandon gender blind policies in favor single-gender models that actively correct bias based on the underlying difference in behaviors.

This kind of targeting can have pernicious financial impacts in different contexts or with bad actors:

Andrew Selbst, an assistant law professor at UCLA who specializes at the intersection of AI and law, cautions against moving too quickly. “Rewriting the law that way opens up avenues for bad actors to start including race variables and gender variables and discriminating wildly in a way that’s very hard to police,” he says.

Last year, the US Army superseded its recruitment goal by focusing their efforts on students in debt, using social media to highlight student loan repayment options. With student loan debt already over $1.6 trillion and 40 percent of Americans without $400 to pay for an emergency, debt will become the factor determining work, housing, leisure and more. Unaffordability makes the dream and identity of the American Dream out of reach for the vast majority of Americans who may be forced to refine the vision of their aspirations as they swell the ranks of more undesirable work.

Conversely, those in the middle classes are white knuckling their way through the growing demands of the modern workplace. At one extreme, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more Americans are dying of suicide at work; another study found that a one dollar increase in the minimum wage would reduce the rate of suicide. Sixty-four percent of Americans identify work as a substantial area of stress, making it the most common stressor reported on the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey. This is unlikely to improve the future as work continues to squeeze every last drop of productivity from the workday, even inserting work into your social media scrolling. You see areas where workers are seeking respite and escape as well as identities outside of work that satisfy them more.

Whether it's a natural experiment with remote work prompted by the coronavirus epidemic or archivists throwing their middle finger up to journal paywalls to serve a larger purpose in saving lives, it's clear that finding purpose and a strong sense of identity in work and at work has diminished. How long before social norms may shift to look down upon the white collar worker?

Climbing the wealth ladder doesn’t exempt workers from suffering exclusion along financial lines. Fewer employees are able to strike it rich when their company reaches the IPO, leading to an uptick in “pre-wealth” startups. These companies loan employees money to exercise their options, putting a Silicon Valley spin on the aphorism that it takes money to make money.

A recent paper quantified the social tax that women often pay when rising through the ranks. The findings suggested that job promotions increased the probability of divorce for married women but not for married men.

There’s a bit of good news about how employers can honor belonging in the workplace. Delta fosters employee creativity and ownership through their profit sharing program which paid $1.6 billion in bonuses in 2019, amounting to roughly two months of wages for every employee at the manager level and below.

Movements like Zebras Unite are calling for different frameworks and practices for building and investing companies that aim for both profitability and sustainability that benefits the public, communities and the employees. Venture capital firms are starting to take notice of the need for investing and entrepreneurship to be more human- and community-centered. Atomico recently launched their Conscious Scaling framework along with workshops that help investors engage in productive dialogue with their portfolio companies to address potential risks.

Lastly, it’s not just institutional investors aiming to invest in belonging. The app Bull
& Moon
integrates design features from apps Co-Star and The Pattern to allow users to select an investment portfolio based on astrological compatibility of their natal chart with the “birthdays” of the companies.

Whether this app is a joke or sarcastic commentary on speculative nature of stock picking as one Norwegian TV show colorfully illustrated with cows, there’s no doubt that we can add commercialization to one of the emergent qualities or factors of the future of belonging. Social discrimination and poor economic mobility make economically excluded groups rely on physical and virtual spaces that are nominally free, but possibly at the cost of losing privacy or lower quality. The workplace will become a place where we feel distanced from ourselves, our loved ones, and our purpose, leading to the rise of alternative physical spaces for gathering and virtual spaces for new modes of collaboration. This environmental shift may prompt cultural shifts that reassess the inclusion of people who must be in a workplace versus those that can exempt themselves for the office or factory of the 21st century. The investor class will llikely struggle with how to disrupt their way of conducting business while not undercutting their power, leading to more marriages of strange bedfellows in new organizations, partnerships and products, services and experiences.