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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » February 25, 2011
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Young Potential Must Not Be Wasted
February 25, 2011   
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Michał Boni, head of the prime minister’s team of strategic advisers, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

What do you think of the current state of public dialogue in Poland?
This is still a learning process. We are still seeing disruptions in our dialogue, strategic development perspectives get mixed with emotional, political and symbolic themes. But things are better than they once were; looking at the discussion of the past few weeks on pension system reform [regarding Open Pension Funds—OFE] I can see that politicians aren’t saying much, it’s mainly experts speaking. I think that even with the whole emotional aspect, this is a very good discussion. It makes us realize how important it is for Poland’s development whether we can cope financially with certain options or not. It sets in motion an intergenerational dimension, triggering questions of demographics and serious issues of the country’s functioning. It is practically completely separate from current political games. This means there’s a chance of shifting the boundaries of how people and society think and the boundaries of public opinion.

I think the essence of practicing politics lies in accustoming the public to different options. This takes time; you cannot simply tell 59-year-old women that next year they’ll have to work nine more months, but the problem does have to be presented to allow people to think it through.

Eighteen months ago we talked about the document Poland 2030, the first strategic vision for Poland’s development in years. How is work on it progressing?
We have reached the final stage of discussion on the document. We have redefined the main switch points of our development. Initially, we thought the main factor affecting changes to the quality of life should be equal opportunities for different regions of Poland and different social groups. Now we are building a development plan around another pillar: innovation in the economy. This in turn is based mainly on education, from the preschool level, combined with equal opportunities so as to stimulate the greatest individual creativity. Our competitive edge has to be based on intellectual capital, which must be created as early as possible. The coming decade in Poland’s development should be a period of a quality boom in education. We had a quantitative boom starting from the mid-1990s, with the number of university-level students growing four-and-a-half times. However, we are having huge problems with transferring this boom to the labor market. As in many other European countries, we are seeing more and more of the syndrome of 25-year-olds unable to cope at the start of their careers.

Only 5 percent of Polish teachers know how to teach using digital technology. As global practice shows, meanwhile, non-routine skills are extremely important on the labor market, such as being able to take advantage of information from different sources and networking with other people. Computer skills are an absolute must.

On one hand, we need to make sure that research results are put to commercial use, and there are ties between science and business. The situation is improving. When the first Western companies arrived here at the start of Poland’s transition to a market economy, they usually had their laboratories in their home countries. Today, they are increasingly signing collaboration agreements with Polish research institutes. A large group of Polish pharmaceutical companies has emerged over the past decade, first exclusively making generic drugs, but now making generics with added value, meaning drugs whose development involved Polish R&D centers. Polish companies are beginning to think of being competitive not in terms of low labor costs but as a result of having better products.

Can the Poland 2030 program be described in terms of a road map? Is there already a time frame for the necessary reforms?
After the success of the transition that began with the political watershed of 1989, if we want to continue to be successful in the next 20 years, most of the key, fundamental decisions have to be made by 2015 at the latest. I think we can prepare 25 key decisions, and three to four projects to go with each one, which means a total of about 100 projects. This will be the road map for the Poland 2030 program. All the projects should have their leaders.
Has the attitude toward capitalism changed in the 20 years after the transition? Does society today accept it, or are people more inclined toward populism, a welfare state?
In the Poland 2030 document, I use the notions of geography and generations of development. Geography is all about what goes on between regions, while the generations concept is related to the fact that around 2020 Poland will have a completely new elite as the younger generation comes into its own.

This process is already becoming evident in the economy today. A very serious question is emerging. The generation—or even a wider group, since there were sometimes age differences of up to 25 years among leaders of this period—that has been in government after 1989 is beginning to run out of steam. What will their successors be like? Some of their qualities are known from sociological studies. First of all, they have a strong sense of being responsible for themselves, they feel they have to know how to cope in tough circumstances. This is proved, for example, by the success of hundreds of thousands of people leaving the country temporarily to work in European Union countries after Poland joined the EU in 2004 and the labor markets opened up. Secondly, for the young generation of Poles there is no longer any education gap or technology gap—the best proof of this can be found in their creative use of the internet. Studies also show that this generation is resistant to fluctuations in the economy. Their consumer needs and aspirations linked to improving their quality of life, including financially, are so strong that their spending levels do not change in times of recession. This is a unique quality of young Polish people that is not found in this group in any other European country. On one hand, they declare an attachment to values such as family, having children, while on the other we see them displaying pragmatism and responsibility: young people ask themselves if they will be able to afford to start a family and support children.

In international comparative studies that have analyzed Poland’s social capital overall and the social capital of the young generation, the latter is twice as high. This generation has all it takes to become the driving force of the coming decades, but it could also become a lost generation. This will happen if we waste their innovative potential.

How could this come about?
I will show you the danger with an example. We are happy to see young people’s flexibility on the labor market, how they take advantage of different forms of employment. Two or three years of such flexibility is very good, but 10 years is much worse. Many studies, especially those investigating psychosomatic issues, a sense of emotional stability, security, are starting to show some negative trends. The incidence of mental diseases in the 25-30 age group is the highest of all age groups. Young people work longer and more, but make less money and have a smaller sense of security. They are able to put up with this because they equalize their aspirations with hard work. However, this affects other areas of life, mainly the number of children they have and whether they start families at all.
Do you feel young people are capable of acting in the interests of the community and the country as a whole?
The innovative potential of Poland’s young generation is visibly higher than the potential of previous generations. This is due to better education for one thing. On the other hand, they have not yet taken over the “public sphere.” They are still insufficiently represented in public life or else this realm is being taken over by conformists instead of innovative leaders. However, I don’t see that young people are introverted or selfish. Perhaps the generation change in 2020 that we are talking about will progress much more violently than we expect today, and young people will move into public life in greater numbers. That’s why, let me repeat, we have to make all the fundamental decisions by 2015, then put them into practice, while the generational change will take place parallel to this. We are working on facilitating the process—we will have a report on young people ready for April/May, including some of the recommendations on what needs to be done.

Do you expect political disputes to escalate and social tension to increase this year?
Political tension always rises before elections and there’s nothing to be done about it. As for social tension, I don’t think there are any serious reasons for it. The only factor could be rising prices of food and fuels. There is something else that I am genuinely afraid of—being unable to cope with post-crisis threats in the sense that measures aimed at stabilizing public finances will be taken without an understanding of Poland’s development priorities.
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