Let’s be blunt, we tend, in particular in France but this country is not alone among OECD countries to behave in such a way, to consider that our labor force structure comprises three liabilities (“passif”): the young, the old, the unskilled.
Why don’t we look at the reality of our needs and potential and start to invert the proposal and consider them as Assets (“actifs”)?
Young people are the de facto buffer of protection for those being already employed. They are suffering hard at any recession; their unemployment level is particularly high. They are just not really welcome into the labor force; they are seen as threats, even as potential troublemakers! While at the same time we desperately need their energy, their innovation potential, and the very fact that they put the others into question. They are definitively a spoiled asset, but spoiled by the rest of the labor force. It is an uncomfortable view, agreed.
Older workers, and by old what is meant is above 50 if not younger (!), are the other buffer of protection for those having a job who then protect themselves de facto by eliminating the recruitment of the young and by facilitating the elimination of the old. The older worker’s unemployment level is high in particular in France. They are somehow rejected, not trained anymore, considered expensive, often considered as dinosaurs (without any real social proof of it)! While at the same time we desperately need their experience, their coaching capabilities and their proven skills! They are also a spoiled asset that we can hardly afford at a time where real skills are really needed.
Unskilled workers are considered the plague of the economy, and in a way they are because it is our common sin not to have been good at keeping our workers at the highest possible standard via our education and training systems. But are they really a liability? Yes they do consume a large part of social systems costs for unemployment or social help; yes they are in some cases, mostly because of the desperate situation in which they are, especially for the young ones, part of the social instability issues. But they are mostly the result of the very bad management with which we collectively handled them. When a large supermarket releases packers — because the consumer packs himself — and cashiers — because they replace them by RFID readers or barcode readers handled by the consumer –; when a gasoline service station releases pump servicemen to replace them by the very consumer servicing his own gas; etc. What happens is that we socially release people with low skills into the pond, trusting more or less the social system to take care of them although we know it will not. Many large companies are responsible; many of us are responsible (how many of us do choose a gas service station with service?). Lets be honest, don’t we need a lot of low skilled workers? Sure we do, to help us in many of our daily activities (cleaning, ironing, servicing, helping, gardening, pushing things around, monitoring security, being a physical reassuring presence in the tube or in parking at night, etc. thousand of needs are not filled today). But our systems have made them too expensive or not easy to access. In reality we all suffer from a lack of services that could be provided by those unskilled workers and we still collectively prefer to keep them unemployed rather than employing them where we have needs!
These three elements of the workforce are not liabilities; they could be great assets if at last we would first change our perspective. Would we be able to use half of our unemployed population for value generating activities, it would be a 5% growth (assuming we have a 10% unemployment situation) in our GDP! A much better comfort of life, a much increased feeling of security or of being taken care of by humans, a pension system much more in balance, many individuals wanting to work later rather pushed to retire at 60 or less, etc.
The issue is not simply a one of perspective, it is mostly one of systems, from recruitment systems, to valuing systems, to compensation systems, to education and training systems, to legal working systems, etc. Take for instance one of the absurdities of the French situation today where such resistances do emerge for working on Sunday while so many people would love to find a work, even on Sunday! The current perspective on the issue is wrong because those who have a job don’t want to work on Sunday (which is understandable for many individuals) but don’t also accept that some people could actually be hired mostly to work on Sundays.
A wide debate is required, not to know what to do about these liabilities and how to support their costs, but on how we could use these assets to make our society wealthier, safer and healthier. Until now, we have been rich enough to support a 10% unemployment level; it is foolish to think this will last. The only way to progress and overtake the crisis situation is to change largely our thinking and our systems in order to change a liability view into an asset view.