Timely proposal: how a democracy can best invest in its people.

Author:Kent, Tom

Tom Kent has been deeply involved for many years in, among other things, Canadian social policies. He is now a Visiting Fellow at the School of Policy Studies of Queen's University.

I was expressing what many people had long been thinking when I wrote, in a paper for the 1960 Kingston conference, "It needs no saying that modern society must be a more skillful society. The demands that scientific progress imposes on us--the skills demanded by its complexities, and the emotional stability required to cope with its upheavals--cannot be met unless we are less wasteful of the human talent available to society ... What we have as yet done in public education is surely only a little of what we are going to do. The need to move further is urgent." The surprise is that only lately have most economists looked up from their econometric models long enough to offer a common policy prescription; in their language, "investment in human capital" is the principal key to economic progress, the means to adapt to rapid technological advance and the globalization that accompanies it. Perhaps the explanation for this new-found interest is that it fits with the currently fashionable emphasis on hand-ups rather than hand-outs in social policy.

A reservation must be entered. Raising our skills is not a panacea. It is not a substitute for the macro-economic policies needed, yesterday and today and tomorrow, to stop wasting our human resources, as they are, through heavy unemployment.

Provided this is clear, there can be ready agreement on how to cope with rapid technological change: as a society, we have to be more highly skilled, more innovative, more adaptable. What that means for public policy turns on the phrase "as a society." For an elite, investing in human capital is easy. For a democratic society, it requires extensive changes in institutions and programs.

The social significance of increasingly complex technology is that it reinforces the age-old injustice: to him that hath shall be given. It is not only transforming the ways we live and work; in the process it widens and hardens the gap between the qualified and the unqualified, the lucky and the unlucky, the included and the excluded. The Economist put the point bluntly in its December 21, 1996, issue: "For the highly skilled, and the lucky, the good times continue to roll; for the rest, forget it."

Little of the new work will be done by older people with little education and with experience only in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. A few will adapt; most will depend on simpler forms of alternative employment. Investment in human capital is chiefly a policy for the under-forties, particularly for youth, and especially for children.

Contemporary research has established what the Jesuit Order recognized long ago: the adult is shaped, in large measure, by childhood experience. The implication for a democratic society is plain. To make the most of our human resources, we have to combat another age-old injustice: that the disadvantages of the parents are visited on the children. Again, the social significance of advanced technology is that it reinforces the injustice, the inter-generational transfer of advantage or the lack of it.

If you are born to parents with average or better income, and especially if they have better than average education, if the home has the gadgets of contemporary technology, it is not difficult to be prepared for the world of work that you will enter. Average talent and average luck will usually be enough for participation in the good times. If your home is poor, if your parents have little education, if neither home nor neighbourhood has many facilities for mental stimulation, if you go to school hungry, lethargic and resentful, then only a combination of exceptional talent and luck will take you to a good job. But the odds are long. Middle jobs, jobs that, with average talent and luck, can be learned despite childhood disadvantages, are shrinking. For most children of the poor, the likelier outcome is unsatisfying, poorly paid work, or none.

The new polarization

Class divisions based on inheritance are nothing new. But they have not previously had to co-exist with the information age.

The disadvantaged are now constantly exposed, through television and the sophisticated mechanisms of advertising, to the lives of the advantaged. They have fewer social inhibitions and more means to vent their frustrations aggressively. The spokesman for the country's biggest corporations recently sounded a warning. The president of the Business Council on National Issues, Thomas d'Aquino, writing in The Globe and Mail (January 30, 1997), recognized that "disparities, in many parts of the world, are rising," and proclaimed the need to ensure that the fruits of economic change "are more fairly and widely distributed ... If we fail to make this happen, then the current economic revolution will face...

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