We Must Build an Employee-Owned Economy

Thomas Dudley



When it comes to work, America is at a crossroads. Good jobs are getting harder to find as roles are increasingly contracted, gigged, and automated. Companies are being gobbled up through consolidation or closing down as the baby-boom generation retires. On their own these trends have made work more precarious for millions. Together they are undermining the foundational premise of America as a land of opportunity. While momentum leads to a future of work that is ever more precarious, it is not too late to change course. We can create shared prosperity by building an employee-owned economy. 

Today’s challenges are decades in the making. The period just after World War 2 marks a high-point for job security. Large firms like General Motors and IBM sought dedicated employees and offered them stable careers. When companies did well, people did well. But globalization, offshoring, and technological change have broken that connection. Productivity and wage growth moved in lockstep from 1948 to 1978, but since then they have decoupled with productivity growing four times faster than average compensation. Companies are getting more valuable, but fewer of those gains are being passed on to workers. 

The rise of the gig economy on the heels of the financial crisis has accelerated this trend. If you work for Uber you might be a programmer with generous compensation that includes stock options, but more likely you are a driver, ping-ponging around town for the lowest price the algorithm thinks you’ll take while covering expenses out of your own pocket. The gig economy has exploded since 2009 with 23M Amricans (9% of adults) working a gig job in 2021. As more jobs are demoted to gigs, millions of Americans will find the skills they have spent years honing are no longer enough to make ends meet.

What will these people fall back on? For many there is no safety net at all. According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, in 2019 13 million households had negative net worth. And for others, a small net might be there but they can’t afford the fall. Just 4 in 10 Americans have sufficient savings to cover an unforeseen expense of $1,000. Looking at fifty years of increasingly precarious work combined with a snapshot of Americans’ finances, one thing is clear: millions could soon find themselves with no financial or human capital. 

This is a major concern for every single American. Since our country’s founding, leading thinkers have recognized that a healthy republic is rooted in the broad-based ownership of property. Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson saw the small landowner as the bedrock of our democracy because owning land made them independent and active citizens. This was also the guiding principle behind the Homestead Act of 1862, which created 4 million family farms. These ideas and policies focused on land because in the agricultural economy of the 1700s and 1800s, farmland was the most important asset. 

Today, the most important asset is business ownership. Owning a business is how great fortunes are built, just look at Elon Musk or Bill Gates. According to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances, business ownership is the largest asset class, with public and private companies accounting for over $32T of wealth, much more than home equity ($19T). And it’s not just the household names who own stock. Among the Top 1%, the largest asset is ownership of private businesses, accounting for 38% of their portfolio with average value of $10.8 million, and the second largest asset is public company stock, accounting for 18% of their portfolio with average value of $5.1 million. Yet, the bottom 50% of households by wealth hold a combined 0.25% of all business ownership, just $1,347 per household. Securing the future of our democracy means expanding the opportunity of business ownership. 

Thankfully we have a solution that has been tested and proven for 50 years: broad-based employee ownership. The idea that employees should hold some stock in their employer has a long history, but it got meaningful traction with the creation of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in 1974. Today, there are over 5,600 employee-owned companies operating in every industry and state. They range in size from 5 people to over 220,000 and employ over 2.5 million people. Employee-owned companies like Publix Supermarkets, Wawa, and Bob’s Red Mill represent the blueprint for modernizing the American dream.

Employee ownership changes the relationship between the company and employee by ensuring that everyone who works at a company has reasonable access to the benefits of ownership. Making employees into employee-owners helps them build wealth. A 2021 study by the National Center for Employee Ownership found the average employee-owner had roughly $67,000 more in retirement wealth, compared to workers at non-employee-owned firms. And this can scale. Our research calculates that if every American company became employee-owned the net worth of the bottom 50% by roughly $81,000 on average.

Employee ownership also benefits workers the first day they walk in the door by creating a better working environment. Broad-based ownership aligns everyone around a unified goal and creates a shared purpose. Alignment increases commitment, trust, and accountability. This leads to stronger relationships, closer connections with coworkers, and increased job stability

Finally, employee ownership makes companies stronger. Decades of research show that broad-based ownership combined with high-involvement management systems increases key performance indicators like productivity, revenue growth, and employee engagement. Even large private equity firms are beginning to see employee ownership as a way to supercharge engagement and increase business performance. Taken together, the evidence on wealth building, culture, and company performance show employee ownership is a win-win-win: it’s good for workers, good for business and good for our country. 

Transitioning to an employee-owned economy would create shared prosperity that benefits all Americans, but we must act now. A start would be converting a portion of the 2.3 million companies owned by Baby Boomers, the youngest of whom will hit 65 in 2029. But we must think bigger than just business conversion. An employee-owned economy represents an entirely new way to view work and a new relationship between the company and employee. We must make it easy for people who understand this difference to find employee-owned companies. We must coordinate and amplify the voice of our movement to share the advantages of employee ownership far and wide. And we must set a standard that people know and trust to defend against the inevitable pretenders. The need for broad-based business ownership has never been greater. The time has come to build an employee-owned economy.

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