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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 30, 2011
Politics & Society
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The Turbocharger Generation
September 30, 2011   
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Michał Boni, head of the prime minister’s team of strategic advisers, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

The Young People 2011 report on Polish citizens aged 15-34 is the third major report which your team has compiled in the past several years...
In 2008, we produced a report on the intellectual capital of Poland, in 2009 the Poland 2030 report and this year it is time for Young People 2011. All the three reports share one goal, which is to update the way people think about key public affairs. The first of the three documents expanded the public debate in Poland with the notion of intellectual capital, while Poland 2030 showed that economic growth was not all there was to national development and pointed out factors such as social cohesion and the development of social capital. We have now taken on an issue which I like to call “turbocharging” when I think of Poland’s development in the coming 20-30 years. It is about making the most of the energy inherent in the young generation of Poles. Each of the reports pushes the boundaries when it comes to thinking and acting, pushing them towards new issues which are of special significance for development and the future.

We believe that at a time of global crisis, it is vital to see beyond today or the next several years and plan the country’s development at least one generation ahead. Such an approach is particularly important in Poland, as we are one of just a few European countries to have gone through two baby booms after World War II. People born during the second baby boom entered the labor market only recently.

In today’s world, development is determined by several different factors and they include changes resulting from globalization, new aspects of competitiveness and demographic factors. When I say “the young generation,” I mean people who will soon take full control of the country, which as far as the economy is concerned is happening as we speak. Research shows that these people are aiming high, including as consumers.

What kind of people are the young generation your report studied?
You could say that the vast majority of the young generation fall into two main categories. The first are sort of self-made men who do their best to take charge of their own lives. Consequently, they are individualists, but that is not to say they are unwilling to cooperate with others. Their main strategy in life is to pursue their own aspirations and ambitions, but what is important is that they want to accomplish all that without tripping others up, without all that envy that characterized Poles decades ago.

The other group, in turn, are steeped in a “give me” culture, an attitude which in most cases they have inherited from their parents. The cultural and financial standing of these people’s families is usually low and so they find it harder to get a headstart in life. These young people also have less energy in them to overcome obstacles and so they more quickly develop expectations that they deserve this and that from the state and government. There is a roughly two to one ratio between these groups at present, which I consider a colossal social change. Polish people of the young generation have become even more energetic in the past decade.

Young people want to pursue their aspirations as regards career, family life, leisure and all other aspects of life. They generate tremendous consumer pressure, or demand. From the perspective of economic development, we need to realize what it takes to maintain the investment impetus and what the ability to accomplish life objectives will mean to the young generation. We need to realize there is a huge competitive advantage of a new kind which makes use of the potential in creativity and innovation. Incidentally, it will allow everybody in Poland to push the economy to a higher level in terms of modernization, resulting in more innovation, more of a green economy and more people with IT and better communication skills, able to work with others. This is particularly important in the services sector.

In the report, we have also pointed to very important changes in how young people spend their free time. Personally, I have always had a hard time balancing between work, free time and private life. Young people, in turn, seem to have it in their blood. They know how to work hard, they can have a great time and then relax.

Is there a risk that young people in Poland will rebel, as we have seen recently in several countries in Western Europe? Or perhaps choose to leave the country?
I tend to be an optimist. If you ask me if young Poles will rise up against the establishment, I will tell you it is highly unlikely and not because they are opportunists. The young generation are simply self-interested, but in the positive sense. They do not need to attack the system when they can adjust to it and keep their life goals intact.

We have not compiled our report to reach out to the young generation with concern and sympathy, but to make ourselves and others realize that these people are soon bound to turn our world around anyway, in the positive sense. They do not harbor any inferiority complex with regards to the West and developed countries. Mind you, they are not like some barbaric horde either. They might have different ideas about things like patriotism, but they cherish values as much as the generations before them did. At the same time, they are the first generation of Poles not to be separated from young people in other parts of the world by an educational and technological chasm.

Speaking of emigration, when several years ago Poland entered the EU and a tidal wave of young immigrants arrived in Western Europe, everyone was anxious. Around 2 million people left Poland when the migration wave reached its peak. Right now there are around 1.2 million Polish people who live and work abroad and the vast majority of them support their families back in Poland, are in constant touch and have no intention of leaving for good. Such labor migration lasts one year on average, which is completely different from Polish migration patterns in the past. In my opinion, the migration wave of 2004-2010 has resulted in significant development benefits and brought Poland closer to the world. Not least because young Poles chose only several countries as their destination, where they were able to speak the local language on arrival.

Do young people accept the Polish labor market the way it is today, with all its flexibility and the resulting uncertainty?
They do, in principle. Young people who enter the labor market are open to flexibility. The actual problem is that even when a young person is a model employee and spends years freelancing and working on temporary contracts, without a single day out of a job, they are not credible for banks as potential borrowers only because they do not have a steady, full-time job. This has to change as soon as possible, but achieving this will not be easy, as it will take a change in the attitude of conservative financial institutions. Polish experts, quasi-economists, come up with the absurd opinion that new jobs are the only remedy for problems faced by young people trying to enter the labor market. The Poland of today is not Spain. Young people take up their first jobs and work hard to earn an income. They know how to make money, but the totally unstable job situation is the biggest problem for them. Our report identifies the problem, as do recommendations from the OECD and the World Bank. We have pointed out measures which can be taken to strengthen the position of young people on the labor market and prevent permanent segmentation of the market.

How immune are young people to populism?
I do not suppose they could be susceptible to some major surge in populism, because populism is for people who crave power with a strong influence on others. Our research shows that young Poles need a strong and efficient state, but not one to order them around. With the powerful egos that they have, young Poles have no intention of succumbing to dictators. Besides, notice that Polish people are not natural extremists. Neither the Polish Greens nor any other social movement tends to be extreme and they are much moderate than in many other European countries. Research shows that, for example, young Poles attach absolutely no ideology to in-vitro fertilization. They are completely practical, pragmatic about it. Young people believe that when there is a problem with childlessness and a modern method of dealing with it, then the state should provide a framework for the method to be used.

What about young people’s attitude to religion?
There is a term in sociology, “a generational experience.” Here in Poland it was used to refer to the generation born around 1920 who lived through the Warsaw Uprising and World War II. Generational experiences for the generations that followed were the European revolts of 1968 and the birth of the Solidarity movement in 1980. We had a heated debate in our team arguing whether the pontificate of John Paul II was the generational experience for people who are young now. After all, a term was coined after the pope died, the “JP II generation.” But eventually we came to the conclusion that it was an important, but not life-changing experience. Given the religiousness of young people today, you cannot really say that the Polish pope was behind the generation’s key characteristics in all aspects of life.

People aged 40-60, the parents of today’s young people, are watching their children in fear—fear of becoming alienated, afraid that a world governed by their children will have no natural place for older people...
Which is why in its fundamental message, our report calls for solidarity and mutual understanding between generations. Understanding is the key. Young people no longer build their communities by going to church, attending demonstrations together and celebrating family reunions, but through social networking websites such Facebook and other similar tools. But even so, people of the older generation need to try to understand them. Young people are different. Never in the history of Poland have two consecutive generations differed so dramatically, now that the educational and technological gap between young Poles and the rest of the world is no longer there. The gap is still there for older Poles. When people who are young today take charge of Poland, they will have no inferiority complex with regards to the rest of the world.

In one of its conclusions, our report says that for the first time in Polish history, level of education has become a dividing factor in society. In the past, the factors were affluence or social standing. Of all such dividing factors, education seems to be the easiest to overcome. When early education becomes available for all, social differences will be reduced and the situation will improve. You could say this is a perfect opportunity for the state to intervene, that is, spot talented individuals and eliminate the educational deficit.

The 425-page report also contains specific recommendations resulting from the analysis of young people’s attitudes. Aren’t you concerned that the recommendations might give a political angle to the report and thus dent its credibility, especially if a different political party wins the elections?
We decided our report would make more sense if alongside a detailed diagnosis it contained specific recommendations for the government. The conclusion contains 35 such recommendations which I wrote myself having consulted my team. This is the only purely political section of the document.

My point is this: even if none of the recommendations are followed, the young generation will manage anyway. But if we want to treat young people as a “turbocharger,” an extra asset for Poland, then we need to try to build up our competitive edge using the knowledge, energy and skills possessed by young people.

The Young People 2011 report is the result of research by an interdisciplinary team headed by senior government adviser Michał Boni. It was authored by Prof. Krystyna Szafraniec from the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.

The report takes into account demographics, education, the labor market and young people’s aspirations and expectations. It recommends a number of measures to be taken and indicates what public policies should be pursued. For example, it says a policy of equal opportunities is needed to enable all young people to attend a school of their choosing. Changes which the report deems crucial in the Polish educational system include making sure that students obtain solid IT skills in schools and are provided with good career counseling in middle schools, while the system of vocational education should be updated. It is important, the report says, to improve the efficiency and quality of university-level studies and develop simpler scholarship systems. Also important are scholarships for postgraduate students and researchers pursuing postdoctoral degrees, and scholarships for talented students to help them study at universities abroad, it adds.

According to the report, educational reforms should aim to reduce geographical differences in access to quality education.

The Young People 2011 report recommends legal safeguards to ensure that workers can return to seasonal jobs, providing them with stability and easier access to loans. The report also proposes more flexible telecommuting, and new ways of promoting innovation in business.
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