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The 2016 election reshaped the language of business

It’s hard to remember 2015, back before Trump was elected, before the Brexit vote, and before the Game of Thrones series finale. The Supreme Court voted to make same-sex marriage legal in 2015. The New England Patriots deflated footballs and won the Super Bowl in 2015. Caitlyn Jenner was on the cover of Vanity Fair, NASA flew by Pluto for the first time, and, in the U.S., the number of fatalities by gun violence surpassed the number by traffic accident.

The business landscape was developing rapidly too. The Apple Watch first went on sale in 2015. Volkswagen was caught cheating on emissions tests and paid $7B to recall 11M vehicles globally. The gig economy debate exploded. U.S. economic growth was the strongest in a decade. Companies were hiring, and they were hiring a lot. The national unemployment rate was 5%.

The way that businesses communicate both reflects broader cultural trends and establishes them. So how were the most powerful companies talking back in 2015? As the economy thrived, even huge organizations boasted of their rapidly growing environments, with Textio data showing that 45% of job posts published by the Fortune 100 advertising their workplaces as “fast-paced” in 2015. (So far, just 9% of Fortune 100 job posts have made the same claim in 2020.)

In fact, it isn’t just “fast-paced.” A whole set of related language has dropped off at the same rate. In 2015, companies boasted of their fast pace, and valued people who could keep up. In 2017, these terms decline precipitously. What happened in between?

The 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Graph showing the decline of phrases like "fast-paced," "expert," and "proficency" between 2015 and 2020.

Language in the corporate world often follows broader cultural trends. As we went through a controversial election cycle that was won by a non-career-politician and compromised by international interference, we see corporate language reflecting the prevailing ethos. Even as “proven track record” and “expert” dropped off, the use of “integrity” took a sharp rise in 2017, showing up in 55% of Fortune 100 job posts in 2020 so far.

Graph showing the rise of phrases like "build," "integrity," and "transformation" between 2015 and 2020.

The pace of cultural change can feel slow in the corporate world, especially compared to the newsworthy events we read about every day in politics, world religion, public health, and media. Yet as of 2019, Deloitte estimated that $3T (yes, that T is for trillion!) was being spent on digital and cultural transformation initiatives globally. Back in 2015, “digital transformation” wasn’t even on the map; only 2% of the Fortune 100 mentioned it in their job posts. Today, it shows up in 35%.

Jobs advertising their “flexibility” also increase hugely, starting off in 15% of roles in 2015 and in 48% of 2020 roles so far. In 2015, our personal use of addictive social media apps like Twitter and Facebook arguably changed the outcome of our election; in 2020, with the infiltration of corporate social media tools like Slack and Zoom into modern workplaces, we both expect and are expected to work from anywhere. Even the venerable Fortune 100 has embraced the concept.

From a cultural standpoint, the 2016 election galvanized people across the political spectrum. As the nation elected a president with a singular lack of public service experience and a strong anti-status-quo point of view, political figures on both sides of the aisle worked to lay claim to the virtuous concepts of integrity and transformation. The corporate world followed suit.

Across the board, companies in 2020 are talking less about speed and more about integrity; less about established expertise and more about flexibility and transformation. The linguistic trends in both directions are clear, and if anything, increasing.

Graph showing the 2016 peak of phrases like "committed," "accountability," and "ROI."

Long-time favorite corporate concepts like “commitment” and “accountability,” along with the jargony classic “ROI,” also dropped off following the 2016 election. Consider the analogous rise in the phrase “lack of accountability” in corporate and political discourse over the same period of time. (For a quick illustration, google “lack of accountability” and check out the results on both the “All” tab and the “News” tab; laments about lack of accountability are all over both the corporate world and the political news cycle.)

Graph showing the 2019 peak of phrases like "equal opportunity" and "diversity."

In 2015, large organizations, especially in technology, were beginning to publish their diversity numbers, but only 22% of Fortune 100 job posts asserted their commitment to “equal opportunity” employment back then. Even fewer —just 11% — included the word “diversity,” and a paltry 4% mentioned “inclusion.”

The momentum behind equity-focused language gradually increased, especially following the Harvey Weinstein allegations in 2017 and the ensuing wave of #MeToo testimonials from women across the world.

By contrast, 2020 shows declines for “equal opportunity” and “diversity” respectively, with both terms rising to peaks in 2019 of 53% and 41% of job posts respectively before this year’s notable drop-off. This is despite the clear increase for the Fortune 100 commitment to “transformation,” as though companies can transform their businesses without transforming their workforces in the process.

The trend is distressing, especially as we’re entering another election year in which the climate surrounding racial justice in particular is especially acute. Corporate language may reflect the priorities of the world around it, but it also establishes those priorities. If the most powerful companies in the world are starting to waver in their commitment to equal opportunity and equity for all, where does that leave everyday citizens?

I’m also interested in a cluster of related concepts that steadily increase until late 2017: “new ways,” “new perspectives,” “catalyst,” “encouraging,” and “make a difference” all peak around the same time before falling off again into gradual decline. It’s as though the corporate world started fretting about an imminent recession, and made a beeline for “responsibility” and “team players.”

Graph showing the 2017 peak of phrases like "new ways," "new perspectives," and "catalyst."

Graph showing the 2016 peak of phrases like "encouraging" and "make a difference."

If the language we use reveals what we value as a society, our collective corporate language over the last five years tells a pretty clear story.

Certainly, not every company in the Fortune 100 is on the exact same journey; even as CVS is ramping up on “meaningful” and “groundbreaking,” Walmart is retiring them in favor of old-school corporate tropes like “stakeholders” and “best practices.”

In today’s market, companies have the chance to distinguish themselves from the competition by the values they set and the language they use to represent themselves. Companies use their language to both signify and shape their values, and thus their business prospects for the future.

Heading into 2020, another presidential election year, it’s hard to recall another election cycle in which so many prominent candidates have clearly defined themselves by their relationship to the corporate world. The winner of the upcoming election will undoubtedly shape how companies communicate in the four years to come.

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