Let’s start the year with a question: Have you experienced progress?
Are you better off today than in the first days of 2010? Your own answer might be complicated, but most people would have to answer yes. In Canada, most families are at least somewhat better off than they were a decade ago, more so than in the United States. Worldwide, most are significantly better off: This was the third consecutive decade during which poverty shrunk dramatically, while living standards, health and peace improved significantly.
More important, though, is a second question: Do you believe in progress?
Here, I feel confident, you’ll find fewer people answering in the affirmative. Compared to previous decades, people today, especially older people, are less likely to believe that things are getting better – or that it’s worth spending public money to promote upward mobility.
When people don’t believe in it, they can make it vanish. One of the defining trends of this historical moment is the election of leaders and parties who reject social progress and human betterment as goals. Some on the nationalist right in the United States, Brazil, Russia and other countries want to turn the clock back to some idealized better time, using policies that protect existing privilege. There’s also an anti-progressive left, seen in the shambolic rise of Corbynism in Britain, which would rather coddle and preserve an imaginary working class than give its members the tools to become secure in the middle class.
Progress is not a feature of nature; as with most human accomplishments, it is something that only exists and succeeds if we believe in it and devote resources to it. The enormous human improvements of the past half century were the result of explicit choices; this could be jeopardized by defeatist ideologies.
In the 2010s, many came to believe that progress itself has become an impossibility; others, including scholars who ignored modern history, claimed that it has never existed. The old belief that your lot in life is predetermined by genetics or “choices” or inevitable structures of market economies escaped the dustbin of history and took on an unsavoury new life in the hands of people alarmingly close to the levers of power.
If one intellectual concept defined the 2010s, it was economic inequality. The 2010s began with mass demonstrations and occupations aimed at “the 1 per cent.” Those protests shifted government priorities beneficially in the United States and Europe, at least for a couple of years.
French economist Thomas Piketty became a literary celebrity, deservedly, for his ingenious book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which proved that income growth for the very wealthy was bound to exceed that of anyone else, absent state interventions. Another impressive book on that phenomenon, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, was influential enough to help propel its author, Chrystia Freeland, to the second-highest position in Canadian government.
This worthy but limited focus on the social immobility of billionaires – the unlikelihood that their grandchildren will wind up less than filthy rich – obscured the more important question, one that affects hundreds of millions of people: What are the prospects for the poor to rise to the middle? What stands in their way?
While vastly less widely read than those bestsellers, one of the decade’s most impressive large-scale studies was published in 2018 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, under the title A Broken Social Elevator. While it partly focused on the “sticky ceilings” caused by the “opportunity hoarding” of the already prosperous – and suggested that tax policy should be used to unstick those ceilings – it saw a lot more promise in cleaning up the “sticky floors” that make it difficult for the children of low-income families to enter a middle-class life of financial security and independence.
If the rags-to-riches pathway remains an inaccessible eye of the needle, the bottom-to-middle escalator is still a workable device, although its state of repair varies from country to country.
In Canada, the OECD found, it takes an average of four generations for a low-income family to become securely middle class. That’s better than the United States or Britain, where it takes five, but worse than Denmark, where it takes just two. (Those averages probably obscure a divide: Many people escape poverty in one or two generations, while others stay stuck much longer.)
Fixing that escalator does not involve mysterious or revolutionary strategies. Expanding education, health and family policies, ending isolation and segregation in cities and regional divides, limiting inheritance and wealth accumulation – these things all help.
This is going to be an expensive decade: A huge catch-up is needed to get to a carbon-neutral economy, and new technologies require a more educated, economically secure population. In other words, we need progress – and it won’t happen unless we start believing.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international-affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.