Post by Cecilia Ivardi Ganapini, PhD student in economic policy and research assistant at the University of St. gall –
According to the most common narrative, we need to find a way to grow our economies so as not to run into problems both for economic efficiency and for social justice. Since the Industrial Revolution, economists and politicians have thought of the natural world as a storehouse of resources to draw upon. If one source of raw materials was exhausted, another could be found. If no one else exists, technology is able to make resources appear (almost) out of thin air. This type of reasoning has motivated a number of economic policies aimed at increasing our GDP, considered indices of economic growth (and welfare). The social implication of these arguments lies in the drop in unemployment. Since technological advances are programmed to make production processes more efficient, if the workforce is not increased, we may see the disappearance of existing jobs and the inability to create new ones for young people. To tackle unemployment, we therefore need to ensure that the economy continues to grow and create jobs.
This narrative contains some problems. First of all, it has long been discussed how GDP is not really able to indicate the “well-being” of a population and suggests alternative indicators that can express non-material aspects of well-being that are not related to materiality (e.g. . United Nations Human Development Index). Second, even economists are increasingly questioning orthodox economic growth. The winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2019 Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo in the book “A good economy for troubled times” show through rigorous experimental methods that GDP growth in itself is not desirable, especially if it is not redistributed in a fair way. Scholars are not against economic growth per se, but they urge caution when analyzing its effects. In the wake of these reflections, a movement is emerging that pushes these reflections to the point of questioning the feasibility (and/or wisdom) of creating new products and services to consume them, especially in light of the climate catastrophe that only is accelerated. in most production processes. Some therefore tend to call for a slowdown or even a halt in economic growth (decline).
We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and you are all talking about money and tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! “
(Greta Thunberg’s accusation at the UN climate summit, 23 September 2019, TdA)
The importance of education
Whether one believes the economy should continue to grow or hopes for a slowdown, one issue on which both sides agree is the need to educate future generations to prepare them for new living and working conditions . Proponents of economic growth orthodoxy see education as a way to accumulate “human capital.” The term indicates the set of skills, competences, knowledge, professional and relational skills that determine the quality of the service provided by the worker and that help to increase the productivity of a company. The most skeptical economists regarding the “mirage of economic growth”, on the other hand, prefer to concentrate policy efforts in targeted interventions that can educate the new generations to sustainability, for example by invoking learning and developing alternatives to fossil fuels . Education policy thus becomes a central theme in political debates. How do we reform our education systems so that future generations can get decent jobs and the future is sustainable (whether this involves economic growth, slowdown or decline)?
As is often the case, these types of themes tend to create a virtuous example to aspire to. In Europe, since the economic crisis of 2008, the virtuous example has been Germany. The main reason why the German system is seen as exemplary lies essentially in the low unemployment rates associated with it.
figure 1: Unemployment as % of labor force, source World Bank, author’s elaboration.
Although the school is a regional competence, primary schools across the country are divided into three levels, namely Hauptschule, Realschule and Gymnasium. In the first two years, the differences between the three school types are small, but afterwards they specialize. The Hauptschule resembles the Italian professional addresses and provides basic education in general areas and then specialized in professional areas. Realschule, on the other hand, is more like technical institutes and has a wider offer than Hauptschule. Finally, the Gymnasium represents the highest form of education and aims to provide general skills that allow you to complete a university course.
The peculiarity of the German system compared to the Italian system lies in the way in which the study is conceived: in Germany the idea of studying as an end in itself does not exist and it is impossible to separate it from professional practice. In addition to the cultural element inherent in thinking of studying always in connection with a profession, this implies the existence of predefined paths that lead students from school to work. Specifically with regard to Gymnasium, students expect to gain access to the world of work through internships, while in the case of Hauptschule and Realschule it is through the dual system. The latter provides the opportunity to obtain various post-secondary qualifications through collaboration between schools and companies. These training courses involve apprenticeships where children work two or three years as apprentices, integrating hands-on experience with the classroom one or two days a week.