The highs of 2012 gave us all good cause to look back with pride last December 31st - reason enough to crack open the fizz and ring in the new. But in these still dark days of January 2013, and for the fifth consecutive year, we are looking ahead to a very uncertain economic future. For Europe this is now the worse economic malaise bar none - and it remains unclear how and when it will end. Indeed, some fear that successive quarters of above 1% growth may have been an accident of history.
For corporations that take their reputation seriously this presents a number of challenges. Working on the assumption that growth must surely be just around the corner - a mistake many made every year since 2008 - is no longer an option. Nor is blaming business failure on the backdrop of the economy; this recession has been with us too long to be the only driver of limited business growth. Discounting, wage depression, recruitment freezes and all the other short term measures to tide one over in a lean couple of quarters…none of these will work forever. And, as well as examining how to grow core business, corporations must understand the impact of long-term low growth on their stakeholders and customers.
If all wages are rising, then it is far easier to announce bumper bonuses - justified by the overall increase in share values and wealth creation. When unemployment is relatively low businesses have more freedom to relocate personnel or to offer generous redundancies. Although economic data for Nottinghamshire in the early 13th century is sketchy, one can assume that Robin Hood would have burnt out if real terms pay in Sherwood Forest had been rising year on year. But when we are all feeling the squeeze, businesses that are insensitive to the wider economic mood will soon face harsh criticism. Anti-capitalist campaigners struggled to be heard in the years of plenty - today they are pitched on live news against CEOs.
To be seen to dismiss the plight of the unemployed or those on low-incomes looks and feels different in 2013 to the way it might have done in 2002. This is not to say that exploitative practices are ever acceptable. But the prevailing economic situation makes setting the tone of what large and successful businesses say more important than ever. And it is clear that everyone can be made to pay their share. When an economy is growing like topsy politicians are wary of stifling expansive growth through taxation. In year five of a depression people power can change the tax status of individuals or corporations far more effectively than a whole army of revenue inspectors.
The smartest businesses have not accepted this new economic reality with reluctance - they have been proactively recasting their business and reputation strategies to confront it head on. In some cases that has meant more investment in CSR - especially where it contributes to addressing youth unemployment and long-term unemployment. In others it has meant business leaders sharing the pain (relatively speaking) of flat wages and modest bonuses. The most far-seeing businesses are already laying the foundations to ensure that when recovery does finally come they have a compelling story to tell about their role in it.
And, perhaps most important of all, those businesses that hope to be trading well in 2050 must be seen to shape an economy in which the collapse of 2008 can never happen again.