The future of our kids

Ladies and gentlemen,

What was the highlight of your day?

One of mine was sitting at the dinner table with my wife and kids. Talking about school, classmates, everyday matters. Perhaps trivial to you, but important to me.

It's a precious moment in the day when you are not worrying about the past or the future.

When family bonding makes you forget for one moment the bleakness of today. The horrendous attacks in Paris.

It's a moment when you are simply living in the 'now'.

Robert Putnam's book Our Kids made me realize again what sheer luxury this is. By enjoying the present, I am securing the future of my kids. With every shared meal I am feeding them with opportunity.

That's indeed food for thought. ‘Opportunity’ as a special treat. A luxury item not everyone can afford.

In his book, Mr. Putnam shows us how daily concerns prevent lower-educated people from securing a decent future for themselves and their kids. Not only are they unable to enjoy the 'now', they are stuck in it. With little time for shared meals.

It's an aspect of a gloomy story unfolding in the United States right now, very eloquently described by Mr. Putnam. He shows us how industrialization has led to social change and how America has become increasingly divided. On the good side of the track, rich kids live in gated communities and go to private schools. On the other side, you see poor kids, living in dilapidated districts, attending run-down schools.

Yet Putnam's tale of two America's is not only about being born on the right or wrong side of the tracks. It’s about the fact that the underpasses to a better life are being barricaded one by one. Opportunity has become a luxury item.

The American dream is at risk. And this has led to disillusionment and despair.

I was startled when I heard about a study by Deaton and Case showing how the downward trend in the American mortality rate has reversed since 1998. While in other rich countries, the mortality rates continued to decline by 2 percent a year, that of American white males rose by half a percent a year. No other rich country saw a similar turnaround.

In a recent interview, Mr. Deaton suggests that middle-aged whites have 'lost the narrative of their lives'. They were raised with a dream, but woke up in a nightmare.

How does this American tale of broken dreams translate to the Netherlands? Can we simply copy-paste the content of Putnam’s book to the Dutch situation? Or is our story a different one? And if we look into the crystal ball, how bright is the future for our kids? Will poor kids be able to use an underpass to a better life?

The Dutch story of wealth and opportunity is quite different from that of the United States. We don't speak about rags or riches, but about dimes and quarters. If you are born as a dime, you won't end up as a quarter. Or at least, that's how the old saying goes. And perhaps that was the case when this saying was coined.

Yet our collective efforts in building the welfare state after World War II have made the proverb obsolete. Regardless of your background, everyone has access to basic services and provisions. Good public education, child support, welfare, minimum wage jobs, affordable public housing and healthcare. These services and provisions are not just the basics of life, but also of opportunity for everyone. So far, our tale has not been one of separate worlds.

As you can see on the screen, the Netherlands has much better social outcomes that the United States. On almost every indicator — child poverty, teenage birth, the proportion of children living with sole parents — the Netherlands scores better. This translates into better outcomes in terms of education and work: Dutch children score higher than US children in the PISA education test, and are half as likely not to be in education, employment, or training.

These numbers show that investing in children and their circumstances pays off. Dutch children are fed with more opportunity. And hence their future prospects are better.

So far so good? And we all live happily ever after? No, not quite.

Globalization and new technological advances — like robots — have started to erode job security and income for some groups in the Dutch and international labour markets. And like the American dream, our welfare state is now at risk. And so is social mobility.

These trends have a positive, but also a negative side. One in which the value of work is affected. Where flexibility has run out of control. Where people have four jobs, but no prospect of a future.

As a consequence, the social divide between poor and rich is increasing. Not yet to the same extent as in the United States, but it's still a worrying development. A recent report by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research has identified two vulnerable groups: ‘workers with an uncertain future’ and 'the precariat'. Together, they comprise a third of the Dutch population.

These groups have less economic, cultural and social capital than the rest of the population. The report states that dealing with the joint problems of structural inequality is an urgent task for policymakers — especially now the social divide is still bridgeable.

I cannot agree more. Now, it is not just the lower class, but also the middle class that’s at risk. People who long-imagined themselves to be safe but now feel attacked. Whose work is threatened by robots and technology. By cheap foreign workers who are willing to work for less. By highly educated people working below their level.

For this squeezed middle class, the escape routes to a better life are becoming scarcer by the day. Their underpasses are blocked one by one. Education is no longer a prerequisite for success. Nor is hard work. Our job market is becoming increasingly unfair.

The middle class is moving from the right to the wrong side of the tracks. Flexibility threatens the continuity of their work. Youth unemployment threatens the future of their children.

Like in the States, this plot turn can be measured by levels of despair. While people believe that their opportunities have increased in comparison to the past, they are not so positive about the future. In particular the lower educated are very worried. This graphic shows that lesser educated people feel that their chance of completing higher education has increased in comparison to 30 years ago — but they think their chances will decline in 20 years time.

So far, the underpasses are still accessible. But for how long? Will increased flexibilization and globalization cut off all access points? And what will the future, the age of the robots bring us? Our task is to ensure access to the underpasses to social advancement, no matter what happens.

It's all about the choices we make as a society.

If you believe the globalists, opportunity is a self-managing unit that will sort itself out along the way. Everyone will get his fair share — and if you didn’t get yours, then you must have done something terribly wrong.

This is of course specious rationale. Opportunity is not a self-managing unit, a guaranteed fait accompli. You can compare it to a biology test at elementary school. Two plant seeds in two plant pots, filled with earth. One of them is placed in the sun and watered every day, the other one is neglected. Which plant will flourish? You don't have to be a biologist to answer that question. For the plant left in the dark, there is no opportunity to grow, let alone flourish.

Ladies and gentlemen, equal opportunity is a choice. Not an individual choice, but a collective one.

First, it's a choice to provide all of our kids with fertile soil. This effort reaches beyond the dinner table. It involves decent housing in mixed neighbourhoods. A good education. A network. Mentors. The opportunity to mix with kids from other social backgrounds. The opportunity to do extracurricular activities at school. The opportunity to build social capital. It’s a choice against private schools, early selection, segregated communities.

When I was an alderman here in Amsterdam I introduced additional scrutiny for public schools. In my current position I want to ensure that all children are able to go to kindergarten and benefit from social encounters with other children.

Equal opportunity for our kids is also a political choice regarding the redistribution of wealth. It’s like shuffling the cards before a poker match. It ensures everyone gets a fair shake; an equal opportunity of winning the game.

It’s a political choice we have already made, and a choice we should continue to make. Take a look at the graph above. According to a reputable study, inequality in the Netherlands and the US was equally high before taxes in 2005 [the last year for which data are available.] Yet after taxes, inequality was much lower in the Netherlands. These figures show that equal opportunity is a political choice.

Equal opportunity also means strengthening the core of our society, our middle class. Without it, our welfare state would fall in two, leaving us with a divided society.

And equal opportunity is about looking at the future. We need to improve and personalize education. We need to ensure everyone is able to cope in the age of the robots. We need to normalize 'work-to-work transitions'. And we need to encourage lifelong learning to enable people to move to growth sectors.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Equal opportunity is not an easy choice. It means swimming against the tide. Too many people are blindly following the pied piper of neoliberal economists who are promising us more jobs as long as we keep income and terms of employment as low and as sober as possible.

They fail to understand that if we do just that —

the value of work will be bartered away in the marketplace. And with it, the chances for opportunity. It forces people to take on four jobs in order to make ends meet. Let alone earn a living wage. Do you think these people will have time to feed their kids with opportunity? I sincerely doubt it. They are far too busy extinguishing fires.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In our country there is still opportunity for everyone. Yet our welfare state is not a title for life — its a floating trophy that needs to be won every year. Only then can we guarantee social mobility. While the Dutch story of wealth and opportunity is much less gloomy than that of the US, we do need to copy-paste Putnam’s advice to secure the future of our kids. Kids left in the dark will not flourish, let alone grow.

We need to feed them with opportunity. We need to prevent the social divide from increasing, by strengthening our middle class. And we need to anticipate current and future challenges. In short, we need to prevent a similar scenario to that in the United States.

Opportunity should remain a luxury everyone can afford.