Tech through a human lens
Rozena Crossman

Machines replacing us humans: Depending on where you stand (and where you work!), this may sound like a dream or a nightmare. Societies have long been fascinated by the idea of handing over difficult jobs to robots, but individuals quickly start to fear what that may entail for their futures. For all the talk about training robots to take our jobs, it seems that for now it's really a matter of training humans to stay one step ahead.

In this edition of Work: In Progress, we take a look at how this technically-driven, but always human-run future is playing out in very different ways and locations. In Greece, for example, a startup has begun teaching competitive computer coding skills to the rising number of refugees who have arrived in the country. This is as much about social policy as job training, and alone will not turn the Greek tech sector into a Silicon Valley competitor. Still a change of mindset can be a powerful thing for a society. That's also the thinking in China where an essay in the Beijing-based Economic Observer asks whether the country will eventually lose its innovative edge because of a public school system that fails to encourage independent thinking.

The future of work is changing before our eyes: from our daily commute to our relationship with our bosses and colleagues (and robots) to how we sign our emails. Worldcrunch's new series Work: In Progress tracks these shifts as they unfold across the globe, uncovering the latest breakthroughs and connecting the dots in time for your next coffee break:

HONEY I'M HOME! Paternity leave has gained traction lately as Spain considers extending the allotted time off for new fathers to eight weeks — a nice chunk compared to the 11 days given to dads in neighboring France. Colombia, which currently allows eight days off, is also discussing the possibility of longer paternity leave. If this is the start of a worldwide trend, it could mean strides in gender equality touching all corners of the globe.

ODD JOB​

FINDING REFUGE IN CODING Unemployment in Greece was at 21.5% in 2018 according to OECD data, but InfoMigrants has even more troubling numbers. When taking into consideration the 70,000 refugee migrants that reside in Greece — of which only 10% are employed — the number comes out much higher. Luckily, startup initiatives like the Social Hackers Academy in Athens are trying to alleviate joblessness and creating real change at the same time: providing refugees with free, certified training in web development. The transition into the future amid social upheaval and technological acceleration means that decent knowledge of programming is crucial, and similar "refugeek" programs are cropping up in Spain and France.

IN FRANCE, GOING ALL-IN ON FULL REMOTE ... Remote working is nothing new by now, but Le Monde reports on a trend of French companies going 100% "télétravail," or full remote. Tech, e-commerce and online learning companies are the first to forgo offices entirely, and employees based everywhere from Paris to Nantes to Lyon are replacing the water cooler with morning Skype meetings and Slack chats. This is not necessarily new in the U.S., where companies such as WordPress already boast 550 remote employees, but it's a bold move for a country that generally still abides by traditional hierarchies in the workplace.


• Worldcrunch has the full Le Monde article in English.

... IN ARGENTINA, REDESIGNING THE OFFICE Can the way your office is built help make you more or less happy at work? Mariana Stange, a realtor in Buenos Aires who helps firms relocate, says si!" She believes in the intersection of architecture and psychology, a.k.a. neuro-architecture. "It's the fruit of neuroscience and environmental psychology," Stange told Argentine daily Clarin. "It studies how the brain reacts to particular stimuli and the impact on humans of determined architectural environments and spaces, beyond issues of aesthetics and comfort." It may change the way a CEO looks for the company's next headquarters — or how a worker looks for his or her new job.


•​ Worldcrunch has the full Clarin piece in English.

AND WHO SAYS YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE BETWEEN THE TWO? Andy Oziemblo, founder of a Chicago-based office furniture and interior design firm, sees a future where the distinction between home and office grows dimmer every day. The more that people can (or must) work remotely, the more companies will need the technology to connect everybody, he writes at Quartz. VoIP phones, which make phone calls through the internet rather than landlines, helps employees around the world appear as though they're calling from the office. "Making sure that all employees are on the same page when it comes to their tasks and team projects means meeting people where they are, whether it's at the office, the home, or in a café, potentially anywhere on the planet," says Oziemblo.

CREATIVELY CHALLENGED CHINESE CHILDREN (SAY IT THREE TIMES FAST) Millennials are digital nomads, Gen Z is hyper-connected, but what will the newest generation look like in the workplace? Even if these kids are still learning the alphabet and 2 + 2, Chinese parents are already worried about the national school system crushing creativity skills. An article translated by Worldcrunch from the Economic Observer discusses how the pressure of elementary school exams reinforces the idea that there are only two answers to every problem: right or wrong. Arguing that "curiosity, imagination and critical thinking are sources of innovation," author Yan Yong worries about China's competitiveness in the future global market.

STAT DU JOUR

TOO AWKWARD FOR #METOO "Keep quiet, settle and move on." Such is the mantra in many Swedish workplaces when dealing with conflicts. Although it protects victims of sexual harassment from being let go, it also prevents companies from firing the perpetrators. According to psychologist Carl Hellström, #MeToo and its zero-tolerance policies are incompatible with the Swedish work culture and legislation, making it difficult to dismiss employees even if they go wrong. It often comes at a financial and social cost, which many managers are not ready to pay yet.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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