Testing times - Issue 126 - Magazine | Monocle

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New industries and technologies mean that changes to the way we work aren’t going to stop any time soon. This is why questioning the nature of income and what the future holds for the next generation are all points of debate. Some leaders of state and business are embracing radical predictions; others prefer to look away. So what is going to work in the future? We’ve taken a look at the governments experimenting with new ideas to find out who’s making progress. Welcome to our lab.

France’s Universal National Service
What happens when you instil a military-like work ethic in the next generation and ask people to contribute part of their lives to the common good?

Nobody loves pomp and circumstance more than the French. On a summer morning at the Ministry of Education building in Paris, Jean-Michel Blanquer, minister of national education, stands ready, along with a pair of military officers, to award certificates to the few dozen clean-cut uniformed teenagers who are standing before him. The 16-year-olds have just completed the two-week boot-camp segment of the pilot programme of France’s ambitious Universal National Service (snu).

The snu fulfils a campaign promise by president Emmanuel Macron. In addition to the programme’s goals of increasing national cohesion and resilience and developing a culture of participation, the snu is also meant to provide guidance for young people as they lay the foundations for their personal and professional lives. After this summer’s pilot programme, when camps were established across the country, the snu is projected to expand in the coming years from 2,000 volunteers into a compulsory annual exercise involving 800,000 kids aged 15 and 16. It will cost an estimated €1.6bn annually.

The snu starts with two weeks in military-like camps. Young participants describe getting up at 06.00 to raise the Tricolour and sing “La Marseillaise”, before 18km hikes, forest sleepovers and self-defence classes. Then comes two weeks of community service. In the future, participants will be able to extend their involvement for three to 12 months in either military internships or community service. Many could be funnelled into the Civic Service, a youth volunteer corps that has been around for about a decade. In a country plagued by xenophobic political groups and homegrown Islamic extremists, the goals of social and national cohesion may seem fairly obvious. But the SNU also addresses another pressing issue in a country where the youth-unemployment rate has remained stubbornly north of 20 per cent for at least a decade: adequate preparation for the world of work.

Several of the volunteers who took part in the SNU’s trial run are unanimous in their praise. “It was great,” says Hugo Bernet from Verneuil-sur-Avre, about 115km west of Paris. “It has impacted me in a personal and professional sense. It has impacted me in terms of what I might want to do later.”

Some independent observers are hopeful in this regard. Nassim Belbaly, director of the Business School at the UK’s Birmingham City University and researcher at the Montpellier Business School in France, characterises the SNU as the most recent component of professional training in France. Children who opt for the extra engagement offered by the SNU and/or Civic Service are likely to “build their competence and their social skills”, says Belbaly. Their beefed-up CVs “will increase their employability and help them land their first jobs”. Celeste Schenck, who is president of The American University of Paris, says, “It will be interesting to see how many young people want to do the optional third part.”

That’s not to say that the SNU is without critics. Michel Goya, a retired army colonel, historian and strategist, calls it a “poorly implemented project that rests on the largely imaginary supposed virtues of the old military service”. Several question the SNU’s high price tag, especially in a period of relative austerity in the public sector, including in education. Leftist politicians have called it a “patriotic masquerade”. The volume of dissenting voices increased after 24 participants in Normandy fainted or suffered from heatstroke while forced to stand for an extended period of time during a heatwave.

Yet the experiment isn’t entirely without precedent – or a model for potential success. One of France’s leading universities, the École Polytechnique (nicknamed l’X) maintained military training as part of its curriculum and added a six-month military internship after the end of conscription in 1996. Students can opt for internships at civilian organisations but three quarters of l’X’s French students choose the military route, says Colonel Bertrand Leduc, corps commander and director of human and military training.

“Whether the internship is with an army unit, the Paris fire department, in a prison or tutoring in an underprivileged high school, it transforms our students in a few months,” says a proud Leduc. “It empowers them by making them immensely mature.”

Monocle comment: The programme hasn’t been universally celebrated but its aims are admirable. Preparing young people for their working lives beyond education is a sensible idea that more countries should explore. We like it.

Experiment 2:
Free public transport in Luxembourg
What happens when you make it public policy to improve the daily commute by subsidising everyone’s journey to and from their place of work?

It’s not often that Luxembourg makes global headlines. But in 2018 the ears of the world were pricked when prime minister Xavier Bettel announced his country would be the first to make all public transport free.

“It’s a social measure,” says mobility and pubic works minister François Bausch of the policy, which is due to take effect in early 2020. “We’re giving everyone access to the same level of mobility. But we also have a specific situation in Luxembourg: 70 per cent of jobs are in and around the capital so we have high numbers of commuters.”

As a result, rush hour in Luxembourg City means gridlocked traffic and commutes that should take 20 minutes lasting for hours. The Grand Duchy has the most passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants in the EU. By making public transport free, the government hopes to ease the jams by encouraging Luxembourgers will to ditch their cars.

This could do more than just improve traffic. “People experience more strain if they have longer commutes,” says Kiron Chatterjee, associate professor in travel behaviour at the University of the West of England. “They’re less satisfied with their leisure time because they have less of it and they’re less satisfied with their jobs.”

The move will not only benefit residents: the country’s cross-border workforce represents 43 per cent of total employment as about 200,000 commuters enter Luxembourg daily, mostly from Belgium, France and Germany. “We see this project as trans-border,” says Bausch. “A commuter from Thionville [the closest big French city to Luxembourg] pays €88 monthly to catch the train. That will be cut by 50 per cent because they’ll only pay for the French part.”

There are critics though. Public transit is already 93 per cent subsidised: it costs just €2 for up to two hours of travel, while students and those on the minimum wage travel for free. “It might spur a marginal increase in ridership but it could take away from biking and walking,” says Constance Carr, senior researcher at the University of Luxembourg’s Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning. “Public-transport use in-creases if trains are reliable and comfortable. Those are the main factors.”

The government is working on it. “We’re investing €3.5bn until 2028 to improve infrastructure,” says Alessandra Nonnweiler from national rail provider cfl. “We’ll spend €400m on new trains and we’ll have 40,000 more seats by 2024. Free public transport won’t fix everything overnight; the improvement will be gradual.”

Monocle comment: Few things make a work day worse than a bad commute. Not every city can offer free transport but more of them should make improved commuting a priority.

Experiment 3:
Stockton’s universal basic income
What happens when you roll out a scheme to give everyone money for nothing, guaranteeing an income for those struggling below the poverty line?

It’s 36c as people head to the South Stockton Education Hub. They’re not just here for the air-con: they are meeting as recipients of the Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (Seed) programme. This California city has launched one of the most ambitious social initiatives in the US: universal basic income.

“We’re giving 125 residents a guaranteed income of $500 [€450] a month for 18 months,” says Sukhi Samra, Seed’s executive director. The experiment, which launched in February, aims to see how far the money can go towards lifting people out of poverty.

So how did the city become the setting for the US’s first ubi experiment? It’s down to 29-year-old mayor Michael D Tubbs. Working with the Economic Security Project, which funded the project along with private donors, he brought the trial to Stockton. “About 22 per cent of my population lives in poverty,” he says. Recipients were chosen based on certain criteria, including a median household income at or below $46,000 (€41,300). Falaviena Palefau, a 30-year-old mother, says: “When I received the letter I thought it was a scam. I renewed my driver’s licence; now I want to save for a vehicle.”

ubi experiments have been launched in Finland and Canada, with varying success. Though most research finds that it boosts wellbeing, there’s little evidence that it lifts people out of poverty long term. But that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t catching on: Democratic candidate Andrew Yang has made it one of his key campaign policies.

As Tubbs puts it: “Universal basic income benefits all of us.”

Monocle comment: Though most ubi schemes have targeted those in poverty, they could help all demographics – giving people the means to start a business, for example. But long-term funding remains a problem.

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