The Next Social Contract

PARIS – Around the world nowadays, persistent unemployment, skill mismatches, and retirement frameworks have become central to fiscal policy – and to the often-fierce political debates that surround it. The advanced countries are facing an immediate “aging” problem, but most of the emerging economies are also in the midst of a demographic transition that will result in an age structure similar to that of the advanced economies – that is, an inverted pyramid – in just two or three decades. Indeed, China will get there much sooner.

Multiple problems affect employment. Weak demand in the aftermath of the global financial crisis that began in 2008 remains a key factor in Europe, the United States, and Japan. But longer-term structural issues are weighing down labor markets as well.

Most important, globalization results in a continuous shift of comparative advantage, creating serious adjustment problems as employment created in new activities does not necessarily compensate for the loss of jobs in old ones. In any case, most new jobs require different skills, implying that workers losing their jobs in dying industries have little hope of finding another one.

Moreover, technological progress is becoming ever more “labor-saving,” with computers and robots replacing human workers in settings ranging from supermarkets to automobile assembly lines. Given the volatile macroeconomic outlook, many firms are reluctant to hire new workers, leading to high youth unemployment throughout the world.