Social Democratic Parties across Europe are in decline. For instance, consider the recent electoral results in Italy, Germany, and France. Does this worry you?
Of course. I was chairman of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. We have to admit that the conditions under which Social Democrats succeeded in the second half of the 20th century are almost gone. There used to be a strong faith in collective representation. Today, people are more individualistic. Fundamental changes in our societies make it harder for Social Democrats. Obviously, we failed to adapt to these new conditions.
Many Social Democratic Parties are considered part of the political establishment. Meanwhile parties positioning themselves as anti-establishment are gaining momentum. Do they have better answers to the problems posed by automation?
Definitely not. Those who plead for [economic] isolation, plead for a programme to create mass unemployment. Germany is a country that depends on exports like almost no other. We produce more cars and more windmills than we need. Of our exports, 60 percent go to the rest of Europe. The “Germany is a payer country that bears the burdens of Europe” narrative is plain nonsense.
The German government of Christian and Social Democrats aims at full employment. However, in other European countries, particularly in southern Europe, youth unemployment is high. How can Europe get on the same track?
Unlike other countries, Germany has dual vocational education and training. A large proportion of young people are trained on the job. This way it is easier to enter the labour market after education and training than if they only learned in a classroom. This is the reason why the German model is so successful. However, it is hard to transfer. It is essential that employers accept vocational education and training as their responsibility. They do so in Germany because it is in their own interest. At the end of the day, we must invest extensively in research and development, also in southern Europe, and less in consumption. For too long, this was done wrong in Italy and Greece.
You say you are a Social Democrat and do not believe in the end of work. Why?
Until now, history has shown us differently. I can imagine that, if not politically guided, work will be distributed unevenly. There will be people who are well-paid and work a lot, and people who work very little and do not get much for what they do.
That seems like a bleak outlook. What can Social Democratic parties or politicians do to change the future?
We want to make sure that this inequality does not develop. So far, we have understood labour market flexibility in a way that meant employees had to adapt to their employers’ needs. Automation offers a chance to do this in favour of the employee. I compare it to the unions’ campaign for the five-day week in 1963. It was not about getting a day off work. The unions’ posters advertised it with a boy saying: “Daddy is mine on Saturdays.” Working and living should go more hand in hand. To shape this is a genuine task of social democracy.
What answers do Social Democrats have for the increasing gap between well-paid jobs for highly-qualified workers, and more precarious employment?
There is not a single answer. It is very important to create a new form of social security to which people entrust their own future and that of their children. This includes the question of how we deal with the future of work in a digital world? Jobs requiring middle and higher qualifications will be endangered too, including insurance brokers, bank clerks, designers or engineers.
What do you tell a bank clerk who won’t be needed in five to ten years?
I cannot comment on every single job. I know that there will be better-qualified jobs left, and I know that the human-oriented service sector – jobs like teachers and nurses – will actually increase in size. For mid-level jobs, it may mean talking about a shift in qualifications.
You have proposed an employment fund. Is that a model that could be a solution for other countries, not only for Germany?
Yes. The idea is that every employee, trainee, or student gets some sort of financial contribution. They can use the money for the time they upgrade their skills or the
time they are unemployed. The question is, how can it be financed? It could be a way to bring the added value from automation to the social security system. Why should Amazon, Google, or Facebook not contribute to the stability of our society?