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Revealed: Why Economies Benefit from Fixing Inequality

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Creating societies where every person has the same opportunity to fulfil their potential in life irrespective of socioeconomic background would not only bring huge societal benefits in the form of reduced inequalities and healthier, more fulfilled lives, it would also boost economic growth by hundreds of billions of dollars a year. This is the key finding from the World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Report 2020, published today.

The report measures 82 economies against five key dimensions, distributed over 10 pillars, that are necessary for creating social mobility. These are: Health; Education (access, quality and equity); Technology; Work (opportunities, wages, conditions); and Protections and Institutions (social protection and inclusive institutions).

A common theme in the report is that few economies have adequate conditions to foster social mobility. As a consequence, inequality has become entrenched and is likely to worsen amidst an era of technological change and efforts towards a green transition. The report identifies four key areas among the 10 pillars where progress – across both developed and emerging economies – is particularly lagging: low wages; lack of social protection; inadequate working conditions; and poor lifelong learning systems for workers and the unemployed.

“The social and economic consequences of inequality are profound and far-reaching: a growing sense of unfairness, precarity, perceived loss of identity and dignity, weakening social fabric, eroding trust in institutions, disenchantment with political processes, and an erosion of the social contract. The response by business and government must include a concerted effort to create new pathways to socioeconomic mobility, ensuring everyone has fair opportunities for success,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

The economic return from lifting social mobility across the board is considerable. According to the report, if economies were able to improve their social mobility score by 10 points, GDP would increase by 4.4% by 2030 on top of the societal benefits such investments would bring.

Further, the report warns that while social mobility requires a new set of public investments, it is the mix and quality of investments that will make them effective and they must be paired with shifts in business practices. Improving social mobility is a multistakeholder challenge, in which businesses must also take the leadby promoting a culture of meritocracy in hiring, providing vocational education, reskilling, upskilling, improving working conditions and paying fair wages.

Social mobility in 2020

The most socially mobile societies in the world, according to the report’s Global Social Mobility Index, are all European. In the inaugural year of the report, the Nordic nations hold the top five spots, led by Denmark in first place (scoring 85 points), followed by Norway, Finland and Sweden (all above 83 points) and Iceland (82 points). Rounding out the top 10 are the Netherlands (6th), Switzerland (7th), Austria (8th), Belgium (9th) and Luxembourg (10th).

Among the G7 economies, Germany is the most socially mobile, ranking 11th with 78 points, followed by France in 12th position. Canada comes next (14th), followed by Japan (15th), the United Kingdom (21st), the United States (27th) and Italy (34th).

Among the world’s large emerging economies, the Russian Federation is the most socially mobile of the BRICS grouping, ranking 39th, with a score of 64 points. Next is China (45th), followed by Brazil (60th), India (76th) and South Africa (77th).

The report also examines which economies stand to gain the most from increases in social mobility. The economy with the most to gain is China, whose economy could grow by an extra $103 billion a year, or $1 trillion dollars over the decade. The US is the economy that would make the second-largest gains, at $87 billion a year. Next is India, followed by Japan, Germany, Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, the UK and France. Most importantly though, the returns are intangible in the form of social cohesion, stability and enhanced opportunity for more people to fulfil their potential.

Fears about social mobility weigh heavy on the global public. According to a study conducted exclusively for the World Economic Forum by Ipsos, 44% of global respondents believe prospects for today’s youth in terms of being able to buy their own home will be worse than for their parents compared to only 40% that believe prospects will be better. The survey also found that more people were pessimistic than optimistic for today’s youth compared to their parents when it comes to having a secure job, being able to live comfortably when they retire or being safe from crime or harm.

A call for stakeholder capitalism

The report makes a powerful case for stakeholder capitalism. The most socially mobile economies all share an emphasis on effective social policies that benefit communities as well as provide a platform for healthy, competitive economies. By comparison, economies that are organized more on “shareholder value maximization”, or “state capitalism”, tend to perform less well. In order to optimize social mobility, the report calls for action in the following areas:

A new financing model for social mobility: Improving tax progressivity on personal income, policies that address wealth concentration and broadly rebalancing the sources of taxation can support the social mobility agenda. Most importantly, however, the mix of public spending and policy incentives must change to put greater emphasis on the factors of social spending.

Education and lifelong learning:Targeted at improvements in the availability, quality and distribution of education programmes as well as a new agenda for promoting skills development throughout the working life, including new approaches to jointly financing such efforts between the public and private sector.

A new social protection contract:A contract that offers holistic protection to all workers irrespective of their employment status, particularly in the context of technological change and industry transitions, requiring greater support for job transitions in the coming decade.

Business to take the lead:By promoting a culture of meritocracy in hiring, providing vocational education, reskilling and upskilling, improving working conditions and by paying fair wages. This includes industry- and sector-specific plans to address historic inequalities within and between sectors.

“Improving social mobility must be the fundamental imperative of this new decade: As long as an individual’s chances in life remain disproportionately influenced by their socioeconomic status at birth, inequalities will never be reduced. In a globalized world where there is transparent information on the gulf between the ‘haves and the ‘have-nots’, we will continue to see discontent, with far-reaching consequences for economic growth, the green transition, trade and geopolitics. Social mobility matters for building a fairer and more optimistic world, but it also matters because we won’t succeed in achieving other objectives without it,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director, New Economy and Society, World Economic Forum.

Tracking inequalities with big data

The geography of social mobility is in part determined by an individual’s profession. Metrics from Burning Glass data reveal that different professionals employed in different occupations are more or less “rooted” in particular geographic locales. Higher paid and skilled professions are more likely to retain their value across different locations. Professionals such as chief executives, dentists, computer research scientist and human resources mangers are offered similarly (high) wages across different parts of the US. On the other hand, judges and magistrates, specialized teachers, transport workers, gaming managers and agricultural engineers face more unequal prospects across the US.

Professional networks, an implicit driver of social mobility, are affected by geography and socio-economic background. LinkedIn data reveals that individuals in rural areas of the US face more limited professional networks as do those who grew up in low-income households. The locations where individuals have the most diverse social network in the US are urbanized states such as the District of Columbia, which houses the country’s capital Washington D.C. It is followed by Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and California. At the opposite end of the scale is a set of less urbanized states –Kansas, West Virginia, Mississippi and Arkansas in ascending order.

A combination of technological change, economic trends and talent demand is changing income inequality outcomes within different industries. Metrics from ADP demonstrates the inequalities workers are likely to face on the basis of the industry in which they’re employed. The Media, Entertainment and Information (MEI) industry is the most unequal in the US. The Financial Services (FS) industry is similarly unequal but has seen a reduction in those inequalities in the period between 2014 and 2018. In contrast, the MEI Industry and the Information and Communication Technologies industry have seen increasing inequalities between 2014 and 2018.

Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society

The Social Mobility Report is a new publication of the Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society. The platform aims to advance prosperous, inclusive and equitable economies and societies. It focuses on three interconnected areas: growth and competitiveness; education, skills and work; and equality and inclusion. Working together, stakeholders deepen their understanding of complex issues, shape new models and standards and drive scalable, collaborative action for systemic change.

Over 100 of the world’s leading companies and 100 international, civil society and academic organizations currently work through the platform to promote new approaches to competitiveness in the Fourth Industrial Revolution economy; deploy education and skills for tomorrow’s workforce; build a new pro-worker and pro-business agenda for jobs; and integrate equality and inclusion into the new economy, aiming to reach 1 billion people with improved education, skills, jobs and economic opportunities by 2030.

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COVID-19 could see over 200 million more pushed into extreme poverty

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Children play outside a metal polishing workshop in a slum in Uttar Pradesh, India. © UNICEF/Niklas Halle'n

An additional 207 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030, due to the severe longterm impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the total number to more than a billion, a new study from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) has found. 

According to the study, released on Thursday, such a “high damage” scenario would mean a protracted recovery from COVID-19, anticipating that 80 per cent of the pandemic-induced economic crisis would continue over a decade. 

Not a foregone conclusion 

The gloomy scenario, is however, “not a foregone conclusion”. 

A tight focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), could slow the rise of extreme poverty – lifting 146 million from its grip – and even exceed the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic, UNDP said

Such an ambitious but feasible “SDG push” scenario would also narrow the gender poverty gap, and reduce the female poverty headcount, even taking into account the current impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency added. 

A “Baseline COVID” scenario, based on current mortality rates and the most recent growth projections by the International Monetary Fund, would result in 44 million more people living in extreme poverty by 2030 compared to the development trajectory the world was on before the pandemic. 

COVID-19 ‘a tipping point’ 

Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a “tipping point” and the future would depend on decisions made today. 

“As this new poverty research highlights, the COVID-19 pandemic is a tipping point, and the choices leaders take now could take the world in very different directions. We have an opportunity to invest in a decade of action that not only helps people recover from COVID-19, but that re-sets the development path of people and planet towards a fairer, resilient and green future.” 

The concerted SDG interventions suggested by the study combine behavioural changes through nudges for both governments and citizens, such as improved effectiveness and efficiency in governance and changes in consumption patterns of food, energy and water.  

The proposed interventions also focus on global collaboration for climate action, additional investments in COVID-19 recovery, and the need for improved broadband access and technology innovation. 

The study was jointly prepared by UNDP and the Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver. It assesses the impact of different COVID-19 recovery scenarios on sustainable development, and evaluates multidimensional effects of the pandemic over the next ten years. 

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Cut fossil fuels production to ward off ‘catastrophic’ warming

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Countries must decrease production of fossil fuels by 6 per cent per year, between 2020 and 2030, if the world is to avert “catastrophic” global temperature rise, a new UN-backed report has found. 

Released, on Wednesday, in the shadows of the coronavirus pandemic, the Production Gap Report also revealed that while the pandemic and resulting lockdowns led to “short-term drops” in coal, oil and gas production, pre-COVID plans and post-COVID stimulus measures point to a continuation of increasing fossil fuel production. 

“As we seek to reboot economies following the COVID-19 pandemic, investing in low-carbon energy and infrastructure will be good for jobs, for economies, for health, and for clean air,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UN Environment Programme (UNEP).  

“Governments must seize the opportunity to direct their economies and energy systems away from fossil fuels, and build back better towards a more just, sustainable, and resilient future.” 

The Production Gap Report, produced jointly by research institutions – Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Overseas Development Institute, and E3G – and UNEP, measures the “gap” between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement on climate change and countries’ planned production of coal, oil, and gas. 

The report also comes at a potential turning point, according to the author organizations, as the global pandemic prompts unprecedented government action – and as major economies, including China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions. 

‘Recover better together’ 

The 2020 edition found that the “production gap” remains large: countries plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with a 1.5-degree Celsius temperature limit. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that the report showed “without a doubt” that the production and use of fossil needs to decrease quickly if the world is to achieve Paris Agreement goals. 

“This is vital to ensure both a climate-safe future and strong, sustainable economies for all countries – including those most affected by the shift from grey to green,” he said. 

“Governments must work on diversifying their economies and supporting workers, including through COVID-19 recovery plans that do not lock in unsustainable fossil fuel pathways but instead share the benefits of green and sustainable recoveries. We can and must recover better together.” 

Use COVID-19 recovery plans 

The report outlined key areas of action, providing policymakers with options to start winding down fossil fuels as they enact COVID-19 recovery plans. 

“Governments should direct recovery funds towards economic diversification and a transition to clean energy that offers better long-term economic and employment potential,” said Ivetta Gerasimchuk, report co-author and lead for sustainable energy supplies at IISD. 

She also highlighted that the pandemic-driven demand shock and the plunge of oil prices this year once again demonstrated the vulnerability of many fossil-fuel-dependent regions and communities. 

“The only way out of this trap is diversification of these economies beyond fossil fuels,” Ms. Gerasimchuk added. 

A ‘clear’ solution 

The report also urged reduction of existing government support for fossil fuels, introduction of restrictions on production, and stimulus funds for green investments. 

Michael Lazarus, report co-author and the head of SEI’s US Center, underscored “research is abundantly clear, we face severe climate disruption if countries continue to produce fossil fuels at current levels, let alone at their planned increases.” 

“The research is similarly clear on the solution: government policies that decrease both the demand and supply for fossil fuels and support communities currently dependent on them. This report offers steps that governments can take today for a just and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.”  

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COVID-19’s impact on wages is only just getting started

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Global pressure on wages from COVID-19 will not stop with the arrival of a vaccine, the head of the International Labour Organization (ILO) warned on Wednesday, coinciding with a major report showing how the pandemic had slowed or reversed a trend of rising wages across the world, hitting women workers and the low-paid hardest.

“It’s going to be a long road back and I think it’s going to be turbulent and it’s going to be hard”, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, as he announced the findings of the ILO’s flagship Global Wage Report, which is published every two years.

‘Extraordinary blow’

Except for China, which was bouncing back remarkably quickly, most of the world would take a considerable period of time to get back to where it was before the pandemic, which had dealt an “extraordinary blow” to the world of work almost overnight.

“The aftermath is going to be long-lasting and there is a great deal, I think, of turbulence and uncertainty,” Mr. Ryder said. “We have to face up to the reality, at least a strong likelihood that… as wage subsidies and government interventions are reduced, as they will be over time, that we are likely to face continued downward pressure on wages.”

But he added that it was unlikely and in many ways undesirable that the world should simply try to return to how it was before the coronavirus struck.

Cruel revelation

“This pandemic has revealed in a very cruel way, I have to say, a lot of the structural vulnerabilities, precariousness, that is baked into the current world of work. And we need to take the opportunity – it’s almost indecent isn’t it, to speak of opportunity arising out of this mega global tragedy of the pandemic? – but we do have to extract from it, the types of opportunities that allow us to think about some of the fundamentals of the global economy and how we can, in the bounce back process, make it function better.”

The Global Wage Report showed how the pandemic has put pressure on wages, widening the gap between top earners and low-wage workers, with women and the low-paid bearing the brunt.

After four years when wages grew on average, by 0.4-0.9 per cent annually in advanced G20 economies and 3.5-4.5 per cent in emerging G20 economies, wage growth slowed or reversed in two-thirds of countries for which recent data was available.

Low-wage job disaster in the US

But the figures only reflect wages for those who have jobs, and in some countries, such as the United States, so many low-paid workers had lost their jobs that average wages appeared to have risen, a misleading picture.

The damage could have been worse if governments and central banks had not stepped in to dissuade companies from laying off workers during the pandemic lockdowns, the ILO report said. It said such measures had allowed millions of wage earners to retain all or part of their incomes, in contrast to the impact of the global financial crisis a decade ago.

‘Constructive social dialogue’

But for economies to start returning towards sustained and balanced growth, incomes and aggregate demand would need to be supported and enterprises would have to remain successful and sustainable.

“Constructive social dialogue will be key to success in achieving this goal”, the ILO report said.

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