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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 ?

The Immigrant Song

In previous blogs, I’ve been more than critical of guru’s claiming a numbered list of thoughts, habits or actions to be the secret formula to success and happiness. You know, the 3 to 10 things you should do to succeed in life, or at least as an entrepreneur or in a job, and why not, in a marriage, relationship or parenting. Don’t get me wrong, there might be some great advice or help in those lists but at best they are fragmented generalizations rarely worth your selective memory space. I dare you to recite any such list you have read in the last 3 months.

Why I am so critical of a numbered list has as much to do with the immeasurable but deeply unfounded disappointment in my former math teachers as with my experience that any perceived reality is far too complex, unique and situational to be reduced to a single number of rules, actions or thoughts.

Anyway, I thought 10 items on a list to be the maximum number palatable for audience and guru’s alike and 3 to be the dummies number. Imagine my luck when I came across Benjamin Hardy’s 35 things you should know before becoming successful, another well-intended contribution to the life-learning internet library. The first 33 suggestions, ranging from popular wisdom to boring platitudes, do not really differ from things you have read a hundred times. Tell me otherwise if you disagree. Reading number 34 left me bemused: The Music You Listen To Determines Your Success In Life. Plenty of you are now thinking you must have been listening to the wrong kind of music at one point in your life. Rest assured, it is never music causing misfortune: it was an iceberg, not the orchestra causing the Titanic to sink. Nor do I think the other 34 statements carry in their own right any more legitimacy to success. Hence I disqualify advice #34. It bothers me though. It suggests there is right and wrong music. Qualifying the latter as Entartete Music is just a step away.

I understand all music acts on its audience and connects to the real world but what charms one individual gives headaches to another. I am totally overwhelmed every time I listen to Ligeti’s Herbst in Warschau while others just hear dark painful ugliness. This short piece of music equals for me the auditory archetype of fall. Not just the season when thousands of leaves fall off a tree but also the fall to their demise of millions of victims of war and genocide. But that is just me: musical meaning remains vague but foremost intensely personal. The last 15 seconds of this piece always send me in a spiral of uncontrolled sorrow and awe for all human suffering. I can very well fathom this doesn’t resonate with you and that you hear something totally different, if not noise.

I have no advice to give you but to stop reading any list claiming any solution to any problem you think you might have, reclaiming valuable time. Time you could spend on listening to music. Your music.

With Syrian fugitives turning into European immigrants , I side with Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki who says: There are days when Led Zeppelin is the only right thing to listen to.

Sobering statistics

Europe continues to treat the world of work in all its antagonistic industrial glory: employers and employees belong to 2 different worlds, regulated by laws and practices, with national governments unwilling to address today’s reality of a post-industrial society. In all of the EU member states, the labor code has become overly complex and out of touch with the Zeitgeist and modus operandi of the world of work. Proof is that we all turn a blind eye to the law stricto sensu as it is trying to harness the present into an armor of the past. Being 100% legal is not only unworkable, it’s also impossible.

I know I might read too much into the physical abuse of Xavier Broseta, head of HR of Air France, when I say the unions present at the work council meeting, realizing again their impotence and irrelevance, resorted to violence and chose the easiest target to vent their frustration. Some of you think it was just be a scandalous act by a couple of individuals. For me there’s more. The unions seem to be stuck in the industrial model while for the last 30 years it has been abundantly clear that Europe thrives on a service and knowledge economy, therefore requiring a different approach. Thirty years of wrong strategy kills all companies, unions included.

The world has not only moved on. There is another reality dawning, which might (r)evolutionize flexible work: the human cloud: work performed remotely and on-demand by independent workers. Knowledge work is easily transportable to these individuals who refuse to be employees. This allows employers to get the right person at the right time for the right cost, irrespective of their location, without employment contracts or limitations. I can imagine a world of work where independent knowledge workers will start to bid for the work on offer. Even a ‘Work Echange’, much like the NYSE, is not unthinkable. Upwork, connecting freelancers with jobs in a variety of industries, guestimates it will reach $10bn in the foreseeable future.

The most sobering statistic out of the Air France story that I discovered in the press is that only 8% of the workforce in France carries union membership. It’s high time the unions revise their strategy and start thinking about how they can influence the future legislative labor environment. They need to surmount their heritage and totally reinvent themselves. Their framework will have to be European, or potentially global, just like their environment. Violating individuals just like strikes withholding essential public services is not the answer. Abandoning current thinking and practices is a prerequisite. It will not be long before union membership falls below 5%, as the industrial share of the economy continues to decline.

Meanwhile, not only the unions but all stakeholders in the European labor market believe they’re making real progress and are modernizing at the required pace. Few acknowledge that the world has passed them by. Most are making swimming pool-size changes oblivious to the fact they are swimming in the ocean. Ask Volkswagen. They understood how big the ocean is they swim in. Air France meanwhile is still trying to fly it every day.

 

If the EU were a company

It’s hard not to write about Greece these days. Over the past 5 years, Greece has not been out of the news. I will not bore you with another political or economic analysis. As one COO always used to say: we are where we are, so let’s move on.

As a Europhile, I can’t really say I’m happy with how the EU is handling the crisis. As an HR professional, let me make the following comparison:

If the EU were a company, shrinking a division’s revenue with 25% (Greece), accumulating losses while obstinately claiming that the non-working strategy will bring positive results in the long run, I’m convinced the Board of the company would have taken action. Removing the leadership team of the company, including the CEO, would have started sometime in year 2. The board would not have stopped there. The divisional leadership, its structure, processes, strategy and people would have been thoroughly reviewed and corrected. Any plan seeking board approval would need to show growth and perspective, no matter what.

I will leave it to you to draw any political or economic conclusions out of this metaphor.

There is however one important leadership lesson I want to draw your attention on.

Successful turnaround stories in companies all over the world share the implementation of a cultural shift. Failing companies need to address their corporate culture first and foremost. Innovation, a willingness to try different strategies and risk-taking are key elements of any positive cultural shift.

Like Greece, the EU needs a cultural shift. It needs to get the EU citizens to embrace adaptability, dialogue and tolerance as a cultural norm. Opposing viewpoints or country-cultures can no longer be a barrier to collaborative success. We need to stop thinking and acting on a national level, lift our head and start thinking on a European one.

Our leaders today sadly fall short on this front. But, unlike in a company, don’t we get the leaders we deserve? Have we not voted for them?

I hereby attach a cartoon by Ilias Makris I found on www.ekathimerini.com published on 10/07/2015

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