Allegra Jordan: It's time to retire "human capital"
Call your teenage daughter “human capital” and see how she responds.
In the realm of business satire, the “Corporate Flashcard” set is hard to beat. They promise “60 cards with all the emptiest jargon.” I laughed my way through “blamestorm,” (to assign blame: “I double bill if you need me to blamestorm.”) and “future-proof,” (characteristic of a “product or service that will not be rendered obsolete by subsequent technological or social advancements”).
I stopped hard at “Human Capital.” The image shows a man in a suit and briefcase hugging his son. The caption: “Someday you’ll be human capital too, son.”
The term “human capital” has been an important way to communicate about what is needed in business. It was a real step up from the days when people were considered even less valuable than factory machinery.
But it seems that we should be beyond this way of thinking about people, especially when we depend on the creative class to pull our economy forward. If we’ve learned anything about creativity, it’s that it includes a lot of “wasted” time while ideas ferment. This is not obviously or always “useful.” Capital, by contrast, should be productive.
Human capital has at least three problems:
1. It’s short-sighted. People are not like inert paper money with different rating gradations. Human capital doesn’t begin to describe our power collectively or individually when we choose to live to our capacities. Even our special gifts aren’t "useful" much of the time. Think of human capital of a good friend who is dying. The lessons you learn from her death may create better quality of life for you and your team than any incentive system you could ever imagine. That’s not the gift of human capital. That’s the ability of human beings to create meaning and, in the end, to figure out how to flourish in life’s last chapter.
In short, spiritual people especially should object to the human capital. We are made in the image of God and destined to enjoy God’s presence.
2. It doesn’t pass the kid test. Call your teenage daughter “human capital” and see how she responds. And if you don’t have the courage to try it on your teenage daughter at the height of her eye-rolling superpowers, why would you use it on your star employee who helps keep aforementioned daughter in braces and tennis lessons?
3. It can create a sense of numbness and distance. We have a lot of corporate lemming-like behavior that piled up deficits and scandals and crushed a lot of dreams needlessly. When we use language that treats each person as an actual person, we can learn what hurts and what brings joy.
Let’s retire this phrase, please. We can honor its contribution to getting us safe this far, and use another concept to get us home. We should come up with a better term. Let’s try “people” or “human beings.”
If we don’t, there is reason to believe that a growing rebellion will. Presidential communications advisor David Gergen gave a speech this summer at Harvard Business School on where he said he saw hope for America’s future in the new wave of students coming through Harvard. Millennial students see the world in a different way, he said. They take seriously their duties as producers, but it’s not production for production sake, but to create a world where they, and their world, flourish. They also address a spiritual reality that profoundly impacts the goods and services they wish to consume. They show us that our best hope in business lies in people who address our most pressing needs and issues in ways that are holistic and that make more of us, not less.
I end with another vocabulary word. Vocare, in Latin, means to call. A good vocation is something that makes more of you. It’s a call to identify and cultivate gifts in each other, and to call each other to account for behavior that does not make more of all of us.
I urge us to let it be our calling, our vocation, to make more of us all. And a good first step would be to retire terms that no longer inspire the dreams they once did.
Allegra Jordan serves as executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.