Culture: A time of unsettledness

by | Jan 14, 2024

I enjoy tipping more than the cultural norm suggests. I’ve done this for most of my adult life and I realize that my ability to do this is one sign of my privileged life. But it’s still a choice.

One change to my tipping habit changed because of COVID, however. After hearing pleas on behalf of food service workers to add a tip for carryout orders, I did the same. Now that dining in-person is possible again, I haven’t changed my habit.

Admittedly, I struggle with how much to tip when I pick up a pizza or some other carryout order. After all, I’m carrying my food home in a box or bag and no one is bringing me a beverage refill or extra butter. But the crew that prepares my pizza knows my name when I walk in the door.

Sociologist Ann Swidler offers an interesting perspective on cultural changes in her influential article, “Culture in Action.” In her article, she describes how we follow cultural norms during a time when society seems settled. During a settled time, we share common beliefs regarding how society should operate. So we don’t think about the choices we make, but do as others do.

Our settledness unsettles, however, when we believe society has stopped working in important ways.

When things are unsettled, we tend to abandon old habits and question many of our core assumptions. We rethink whether a different way makes more sense. Swidler argues we insist and believe we’re pursuing the same ends we did before, even as we change our ways. And we’ll justify our changes using the same phrases we used before to describe different actions.

Two events that quickly unsettle cultures are war and economic depression. During the 1930s, the U.S. experienced both. David Leonhardt argues that this period of unsettledness allowed our country to rethink, among other societal norms, the relationship between workers and employers, and government’s role in these relationships.

During this time, leaders like Paul Hoffman helped our country to rethink what it means to be a citizen and how societal expectations should affect decisions regarding wages and profits. As President of Studebaker, Hoffman had credibility. As a professor, he had a platform that helped shape future business leaders.

Hoffman told students that our democracy was at risk because people had stopped fighting for the common good and started fighting one another. The solution to saving democracy, according to Hoffman, was for leaders of business, labor, farming, and government to stop looking out only for their narrow interests and start caring about America as a whole.

Leonhardt argues that a shift in cultural norms ushered in an era of democratic capitalism. Company leaders still focused on profits and still measured success by the size of paychecks and bank accounts. However, an emerging cultural norm suggested there are reasonable limits to how much, even the most successful leaders, should make.

Leonhardt points to the example of George Romney, then President of American Motors, who told his Board Members too much income was a distraction for any leader. The Board agreed to cap his income at $225,000. Romney later became Governor of Michigan and made an unsuccessful bid to be the Republican Presidential candidate in 1968. An interesting side note is that critics questioned his eligibility since he was born in Mexico.

A new cultural norm made it seem both possible and natural for Romney to make a decision that would seem ludicrous decades earlier.

Because of changes in cultural norms, compensation for CEOs rose modestly from the 1940s through the 1970s, and the gap between CEO and common worker’s pay continued to decline. According to Leonhardt, while Mitt Romney shared many of the same convictions as his father, limiting his own compensation wasn’t one of them. Cultural norms regarding compensation differentials were already changing.

Jesus Christ arrived in our world during an unsettled time in first century Palestine. Even His arrival was unsettling. And His teachings continue to unsettle us any time we’re willing to reconsider our core values and consider a different approach.

The Kingdom of heaven is like this…those who are last will be first, and those who are first will be last
Matthew 20:1-16

One day, Jesus told a controversial story that questioned cultural norms. There was this vineyard owner who needed workers and will pay the prevailing wage of one silver coin per day. Jesus tells us that some workers started that morning, and a few more started midday. Still more began work in the afternoon. Altogether, start times varied from morning throughout the day, with the last workers showing up not long before quitting time.

The owner presented an oral contract to the first workers. However, those hired later were told they would receive a fair wage without specifics. The latter hires had to trust the owner’s sense of fairness.

When it came time to pay the workers, the vineyard owner started with those who came last, giving each one silver coin. He continued paying the workers who came latest before paying those who started earlier. But in all cases, the pay was the same. Each worker received the prevailing rate for a day’s work of one silver coin.

This didn’t sit well with those who punched in at the start of the day. Why should those who only worked a couple hours receive the same pay as them they argued?

The vineyard owner pushed back on their complaints. “I have not cheated you,” he responded. “You agreed to do a day’s work for one silver coin. I want to give this man who was hired last as much as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do as I wish with my money? Or are you jealous because I am generous?”

Experts connect this story with one that comes right before this one. A wealthy man asked Jesus what it would take for him to enter God’s Kingdom. When the man learned that it would take giving up his wealth, he left saddened by his new insight.

Entrepreneurs risk wealth and work hard for the success of their business. They’re the first workers on the scene. It makes sense that they receive the biggest reward. This understanding is our cultural norm. This is also how capitalism works.

Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, is usually credited with the idea of capitalism. In his masterwork, “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam described emotional and moral influences that affect human behavior, such as, pride, envy, and respect. He briefly mentioned an invisible hand associated with individual self-interest that some argue makes capitalism work best without government interference.

However, mostly, we don’t make independent judgments about moral issues. It would be overwhelming. Rather, our behavior is influenced by culture. Common practices that guide how we interact with friends, relatives, colleagues, and strangers. In other words, culture.

The cultural norms that evolved after the Great Depression lasted until another period of unsettledness emerged mid-century. By the late 20th century, the cultural limits on top executive income were gone and a handful of individuals since then have risen to unimaginable levels of wealth. The gap between rich and poor continues to grow even while the average worker’s wages fails to keep pace with rising cost.

Leonhardt notes it will take a substantial disruption to unsettle the existing culture that coalesced around a new model of capitalism that favors the wealthy at the expense of the rest. However, we shouldn’t expect change to come from business leaders.

Instead, our democratic system is ideally situated for intervention. Leonhardt cites examples where government programs benefited all of us including businesses. By 1960, argues Leonhardt, “The economy had become less unequal than it had been at the start of the twentieth century as a result of the acquisition of political power by workers and the changed culture of corporate America. And economic growth had surged.”

However, the political power gained by labor didn’t come only from grit. Instead, culture settled on a new norm, even while using familiar language to describe actions.

Jesus tells us His Kingdom often works against cultural norms. Whether settled or unsettled, Jesus asks us to think hard about our core beliefs and priorities. And consider a different way of doing business. We learn to rethink our decisions based on God’s plan for abundance.

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Pastor Tommy


Parts of our series was inspired by David Leonhardt. Ours was the Shining Future: The Story of the American Dream. New York: Penguin Random House, 2023.

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