When I’m 64

Should I envy the new entrants in the labor market for their youth, future and possibilities? The Economist’s fantastic summary of the Future of Work which I used extensively to write this blog, made me wonder. While instinct says yes, reason holds me back. The treshold to enter the labor market has never been this high. Millions of graduates in the EU for all sorts of reasons struggle to find a rewarding role. To fit an employer’s choice today, understanding how costly labor in the EU is, the future looks  harsh. Having the labor market ruled by unadapted laws and practices for the digital economy is one thing. Failing to acknowledge and respond to the challenges is however another.  It is time Marianne Thyssen within the EU framework formulates a long-term plan to bring the world of work into the 21st century.

 

While national governments, employers and unions complacently lack the courage to structurally reform the world of work, the EU is risking to waste a big part of a generation’s talent. Stubbornly holding on to an antiquated labor market framework while sacrificing millions of new potential contributors is shortsighted and ultimately suicidal. Priviliging the hoardes of spoiled baby boomers who’ll retire over the next decade, isn’t a sustainable policy either, especially when this astronomical invoice is irrevocably passed on to the next generation. If you’re starting your career now, it will be impossible for you to save enough money during 45 to 50 years of working life to fund 25 years of retirement unless you work till 75 years old or more. You are presented with a double bill: paying for your house and family and your future retirement while paying off the retirement bill of all former generations. The blessing or curse of longevity, depending on where you are in your career, is literally a life sentence.

 

Still, the EU and all other developed nations, i.e. Japan, need a massive amount of employed talent not only to fund the pension gap but also the health care bills for as long as public spending favors caring for the old instead over investing in the young. Although this stream of money, from young to old,  is recently new, it looks like it is here to stay. The political and economic power of the greying generations will guarantee this upstream money-flow. The world of work will have to cater for it. Radical disruptive reform is inevitable. The governments, employers and unions will have to fundamentally rethink their contribution to the world of work. In other words, these 3 wiil need to embrace the future and let go of the past. This will be hardest for the unions as the past is their present raison d’être.

 

The EU faces another problem: 85% of the young people live in developing countries. The competency level of this you generation is increasing year on year. The developed nations will have no choice but to attract their prime talents and entice them to build a prosperous career as an immigrant. Half of the countries in the EU but especially the UK have monetized the benefits of imported qualified labor. Immigration for all developed nations is no longer a choice, it is a must. While the EU is politically and culturally not ready for this reality, the workforce of its retirement homes just like any other workplace, increasingly reflects the need for imported qualified labor.

 

Japan is facing this reality more than any other nation today. With over a third of its population soon to be over 65 years old, it is starting to attract foreign talent in a pro-active way. Millennials of developing nations are recruited through targeted websites like flexoffers, promoting working abroad. The EU countries have no other choice. They need to upgrade their workforce with foreign talent. Unifying while harmonising its labor market would benefit all.

The baby boomers are counting on you as a new entrant to the labor market, immigrant or not. You’re likely to live to be a hundred years old and work for more than 50 years, paying off their bills. While they are making your life unfairly tough, they thank you for your contribution. Need I mention that most have retired way before the blessed age of 64 ?

Let’s go crazy

500 years ago, Thomas More was part of a delegation revising an Anglo-Flemish commercial treaty, residing in Bruges. After his return to London, he completed his Utopia and published it at Leuven in December 1516. Utopia was written for the humanists in Europe and an elite group of public officials. More’s Utopia is a pagan communist city-state in which the institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason.

Today I allow myself some utopian thinking. I am imagining a United Europe in which institutions and policies are entirely governed by reason. I am imagining a Europe where there no longer us and them, whether ‘us’ is a nationality or religious conviction and ‘them’ is an investment banker or Syrian refugee. A Europe no longer shaping its future on illusions of the past, a Europe embracing change armed with values and laws. Values like freedom of thought and expression, gender equality, a democratic secular state ruled by law, etc. A union where all Europeans, by birth or immigration, integrate into a new political, economic, social and cultural reality.

Which brings me to the Brexit discussion. Reason tells me Europe would be better off without the UK. Since 1973, the UK has been a reluctant member. Margaret then, Boris now, represent the uneasy thought that Brussels is gnawing at absolute British sovereignty. Every opportunity to block further integration is seized with vigor and pride. It has stalled the EU for decades. It has also made the EU weak where it needs to be strong: political integration, especially in foreign policy, and economic and social integration, to create an economic bloc second to none. The British tend to be that distant family member we all have, who turns up at a wedding party just to spoil it.

The British mindset is governed by fear. Fear of losing control, fear of losing their way of life, fear of losing a sovereignty that in theory exists on paper but is in practice long gone through the reality of the global village. London might be the most diverse place on earth, but still, 25 miles out, the British are caught in the illusion of the good old days, when Britannia ruled the waves. Clearly the British feel like Julius Caesar who had rather been first in a village than second in Rome. Reason says: let them have the village while we’ll building Rome. Let them kill Thomas More twice.

Everybody working with leadership teams knows how important it is to align all members of the team to the same business strategy and execution. If you don’t agree with where the bus is going, you get off before you’re asked to. It is no different in team sports. It’s no different in the EU.

My heart, hopes that the British will just like Julius Caesar, see the village for what it truly is. I hope the British will cast the die and cross their Rubicon to be the first in Rome. I know today Brussels lacks the glory of Rome but not its power.

Reason however tells me to go crazy. I propose the EU holds a referendum under which conditions we allow the UK and for that matter any country on the EU bus or not.

Leadership opportunity

The need for change has never been so obvious. Nor have the opportunities ever been so numerous.

The Euro crisis formed a unique opportunity to transform Europe from a mere union of money and numbers into a humane political, social and economic project.  The interim solution as it stands today fails on all fronts and condemns Greece to decades of poverty.

The Syrian refugees offer a new opportunity.  Europe responds with solutions of the 1930’s. Climate change, youth unemployment, the masses of older people living in solitude, … how many more opportunities do our European leaders need to understand that none of today’s problems can be solved on a national level? That the framework of countries within Europe claiming sovereignty on all fronts is outdated and outpaced?

When I see Europe, an economic force of 500 million people, struggling to integrate and provide a future for up to 4 million destitute refugees, I can only conclude that Europe has some work to do. Four million doesn’t even amount to 1% of Europe’s current population. While the current inflow might be disruptive, its long-term effect will be positive on all fronts. If Europe can’t cope with this, how will it provide a future for 25 million young unemployed? How will it provide care for the tens of millions of septuagenarians (and up)? How will it keep from being marginalized on the world’s stage?

If I didn’t know any better, I would have to agree with John Gray’s claim in Straw Dogs (2007) that progress is a myth and morality is a fiction. However, the spontaneous flow of support for the Syrian refugees has corrected Europe’s political course. We need to build on the momentum and continue to seize the opportunities. Our economic, social, political and cultural challenges are excellent drivers for change and growth. All we lack is leadership.

You would think that leadership would be available in abundance. Over the past 50 years, no subject has been better studied and documented. Gazillions of leadership books, courses, consultancy programs and guru’s have created a leadership industry. Is Leadership such a hard nut to crack?

In its simplest form, Leadership is about embracing the need for change, developing a framework for a better future, elaborating a strategy to implement the journey towards that future but above all it is about transforming the people’s mindset to set the change in motion. Leadership is about maturing people’s minds to different ideas, capitalizing on random opportunities. Leaders rise to the occasion and people respond.

Our European leaders seem to have none of this, not even the thought leadership. They clearly have lost sight of the objective of Europe as they only see obstacles in the form of nationalistic barricades. Managing these obstacles with recipes of the past might prove popular but is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It’s time for Europe to step up. The leadership opportunity knocks…

Today I leave you with a satirical reflection of Randy Newman on the Great Nations of Europe, just to add some historical perspective to our glorious past. Don’t we want to do better from now on?

Great Nations of Europe by Randy Newman

The picture by courtesy of the Huffington Post.

 

Mobility

Cycling through France last week, my wife and I ended up Monday night on the terrace of a popular local restaurant: the usual French menu with the usual French charm. Small tables, hard wooden chairs, fair prices, good food served with self-confidence, regional wines, busy, crowded, noisy, yet colourful. No surprises. The terrace was full, seating more than twenty people. You could not help but overhearing everybody’s conversation. A British family was praising the curry mussels while a German couple were unsuccessfully perusing the wine list for great Bordeaux. We settled in and started to review our day while glancing over the traditional menu. While debating the comfort of the bicycle saddle and accusing the chairs we sat on of obvious conspiracy, the young couple next to us asked what language we were speaking. Flemish, my wife answered, explaining it was like Dutch but not really Dutch. They politely smiled. Having overheard their previous conversation, I asked what Italian region they were from. Calabria, a region at the toe of the boot, she manifested. You could see both her and him come to life talking about their place of origin. I asked what had brought them to Orléans, seeing they were not regular tourists: work, they shouted. She explained: we own an Italian restaurant in an industrial park just outside the city and are just enjoying our day off.

They continued to explain their schedule, when the restaurant was open, how they still managed to have a well-balanced life, how they liked what they were doing, etc. The conversation went on for a short while. Their dessert and our main course got in the way of a log conversation.

What struck me was how normal they both perceived their move to Orléans to be. They were not just young people with an open mind looking for their next adventure. Nor were they economic refugees. They were responsible young entrepreneurs, evolving in a market they understood very well. When looking to start their business, they not only picked a city in central France but also preferred an industrial area, allowing them to close the restaurant in the evening on weekdays to grant them family time. They fully live and act as Europeans: borderless minds with borderless plans. They could set up shop in every EU country tomorrow and still go home every day. Non-millennials are national by birth, some wanting to be European by choice. The people I met are European by origin, unlimited by their accidental nationality. They understand very well countries are a thing of the past. Their playground is a European nation.

When they finished up their evening at the restaurant, they called for the waiter, thanking and tipping royally for the friendliest hospitality they had received in years. The waiter was surprised but appreciative. I thought I had just met 2 of the most wonderful people in France.