- Reset + Print

At the Sciences Po Graduation Ceremony in France

29.06.2018

Dear graduates!

Please accept my sincerest congratulations! You are coming to the end of your formal education path, which we, your parents’ generation, lovingly prepared for you.

We did it with your best interests in mind. However, we did it from the perspective of the past. You have acquired an education we thought would prepare you adequately for the challenges of your generation. Of course, as all loving parents before us, we got some things right and missed other opportunities.

At some point, we realized that the technological cycle has been shortening. We did foresee, to a certain extent, that the 21st century would witness the birth and death of many more inventions than the 20th century. After all, only the petroleum lamp and horse cart truly expired in the last century. Most inventions were merely made more efficient, but survived.

We did not foresee that the first mobile phones we gave you would seem like they were from the Stone Age by the time you graduated from university. We did not foresee that the digital disruption to our societies would be so profound that many of you will be able to work very differently than us already by the time of your graduation.

We did not foresee that geography would have become meaningless for many professionals seeking jobs. We did not foresee that many of you would not need to do what economists thought was inevitable for a whole century: gather into enterprises in order to work in the most productive manner possible.

We did not foresee that the proportion of people working in industry in developed economies would fall from about 30% when you were born to 19% today, here in France, at the time of your graduation, and will decline to perhaps 3-5% of the whole workforce by the time you have been on the job market for 15 years.

We did not foresee that you would be the most powerful generation of history, free to work wherever you want, whenever you want, with whom you want, and with the ability to reconsider as often as you wish.

We gave you the freedoms we ourselves dreamt of – the four freedoms of Europe, the eurozone, and Schengen. However, digital disruption has given you a lot more than we could ever provide.

You will enjoy absolute freedom on a global level, determined and defined only by your own imagination. You can work in different enterprises, even in different countries, simultaneously. You will not need to demand flexible working hours; instead, you will define them yourselves. You will not accept to sit in any one city or country while you work. You will insist that even if you should work as an assembly line inspector, you should be able to do so from a Mediterranean beach or the top of the Alps. You will not accept long-term contracts or competition clauses, as you will definitely be able to sell your specialized skills independently and to many enterprises simultaneously.

We did not prepare you for that from the first day you entered école maternelle. Nevertheless, I know we’ve also gotten something right. We have taught you human rights and liberal democratic values.

Starting tomorrow, you will begin adapting our Europe and our world to the new era that has dawned while you were growing up. The values you carry are much more important for this work than any technical skill with which we did or did not provide you.

We have seen our society disrupted by the development of digital technologies. However, we have not yet been able to adapt it to the new reality. This job is yours.

The way you live and work will not even fit into our categories of employee, employer, self-employed, unemployed, or parental leave. You can easily be all of these at the same time.

You will not accept your formal address defining the set of societal services available to you. You will demand something different. A safe dock of a state from which you can get services as you need and wherever you may find yourself.

We have not yet figured out how to transform our social systems according to this new reality. Our current social model shadows the industrial working model.

However, the old industrial work model is gone. Society has been built on a river of taxes that stream from smaller and bigger enterprises. If government spending is, according to the old social contract, made only on those who have a fixed home address, then the system cannot survive. You will demand the global redistribution of services.

You will want healthcare wherever you find yourself. You will seek native-language tutoring for your kids even when you are far from the language environment itself. You will want to participate and vote in the state you feel closest to, and to pay the taxes to the state which provides the best support scheme for you, the globally working and residing citizen.

Your income may come from many different enterprises in a number of different countries, some of them in and some of them outside of the EU. Yet, somehow, one state has to take responsibility to provide you with services, starting with healthcare and your children’s education and all the way up through pensions.

I know we should have thought of this earlier and have presented you with solutions already. However, this fact is only dawning upon us now. We are not ready, and therefore, we risk losing your taxes, your participation in our social system, and your trust towards the state as the provider of a security network. In principle, all of you in this room can just go private. You are well educated, you will have high salaries, and you can afford it. However, it would be the end of the European social system.

We must urgently figure out a new, free social contract between a state and its citizen, in which the state takes responsibility to continue providing services to its people wherever they work and live. The citizens, in exchange, can contribute to the state’s resources according to their income, whichever and wherever its origin.

Without this new model, our society, which is able to provide the security networks we are so used to having, will come to an end. Income disparities will become difficult to bear if basic services like education and healthcare are no longer available to all. Social mobility will die. On top of that, it will all happen at a crucial period in which we need resources to help those more vulnerable in our societies to adapt to the changes we are currently experiencing.

This change is unprecedented in its speed, but not in its nature. We know that transformation from an agricultural society to an industrial one was very painful for vulnerable classes of people. If we have taught you humanity the way we hope we have, then you will act quickly. You will adapt our societies before the positive technological transformation morphs into a negative scenario for vulnerable persons.

You will also need to adapt the education system to the needs of your kids the way we never did. Your children will enter school being much more literate and knowledgeable than you were. They have the world at their little fingertips from the very moment they learn to swipe them across screens. Educational programmes available to kids are already focusing on schoolchildren who have skills in maths, language, or geography far beyond the level of their school programme. You must adapt their teaching accordingly.

My son is nine. He has 35 classmates. Only one them has as poor a grasp of the English language as their third-grade textbooks expect. Half of them speak fluently, though none of them can write in the language. Many can even solve geometry problems that they have found in online learning programmes far above a third-grade level. They are at risk of becoming bored and misbehaving, and even if they do not, then they are wasting their time at school by not adding anything new to the skillset they already possess. These children do not fit into a year-based system. They need a school, which will develop the skills they already have while making sure they do not lack an understanding of how to be human, caring, and compassionate.

I reckon your kids will not want to start from grade one and simply pass from class to class. They will want to sit with friends at their own level and solve problems that stimulate them. They will want to take university-level courses in some subjects, and at the same time will require gentle nudges in order to gain basic skills in others. You must provide them with this stimulating educational world.

As technology gets smarter and smarter, you and your kids will live in the world where trained machines operate among them and do so ever more independently. Machines will be highly adept at what they are trained to do, but will not have the general, unlimited intelligence of a human being. Our world has not adapted yet to this change. You must also take care of that.

We likewise urgently need international agreements, control, and monitoring tools for artificial intelligence. If we already start thinking in these terms, then all lower levels of machine intelligence must be covered, too.

Yet, please do not be alarmed by technological development. Please do not restrict your kids’ interest in gadgets at a personal level, but instead put their curiosity to good use. At the national and international levels, please be better than we have been at smartly designing the legal space for technology’s development, utilisation, and control. Then, you will reap the full benefits for society and have control over the associated risks. I wish you all the best in exceeding the accomplishments of all previous generations!

This speech was originally delivered in French.