Life has changed substantially for individuals in advanced economies in the first two decades of the 21st century as a result of trends including disruptions in technology, globalization, the economic crisis of 2008 and its recovery, and shifting market and institutional dynamics. In many ways, changes for individuals have been for the better, including new opportunities and overall economic growth—and the prospect of more to come as the century progresses, through developments in science, technology and innovation, and productivity growth. Yet, the relatively positive perspective on the state of the economy, based on GDP and job growth indicators, needs to be complemented with a fuller assessment of the economic outcomes for individuals as workers, consumers, and savers.
In a report, The social contract in the 21st century: Outcomes so far for workers, consumers, and savers in advanced economies, the McKinsey Global Institute takes an in-depth look at these changes in 22 advanced economies in Asia, Europe, and North America, covering 57 percent of global GDP. Among the findings: while opportunities for work have expanded and employment rates have risen to record levels in many countries, work polarization and income stagnation are real and widespread. The cost of many discretionary goods and services has fallen sharply, but basic necessities such as housing, healthcare, and education are absorbing an ever-larger proportion of incomes. Coupled with wage stagnation effects, this is eroding the welfare of the bottom three quintiles of the population by income level (roughly 500 million people in 22 countries). Public pensions are being scaled back—and roughly the same three quintiles of the population do not or cannot save enough to make up the difference.
These shifts point to an evolution in the “social contract”: the arrangements and expectations, often implicit, that govern the exchanges between individuals and institutions. Broadly, individuals have had to assume greater responsibility for their economic outcomes. While many have benefited from this evolution, for a significant number of individuals the changes are spurring uncertainty, pessimism, and a general loss of trust in institutions.
Policy makers, business leaders, and individuals will need to focus on two fronts. The first is sustaining and expanding the gains achieved through continued economic and productivity growth; business dynamism; investment in economies, technology and innovation; and continued focus on job growth and opportunity creation. The second is tackling the challenges individuals face, especially those most affected. Leaders are beginning to respond to these opportunities and challenges to varying degrees. However, more is needed given the scale of the opportunities and challenges, if the outcomes for the next 20 or more years of the 21st century are to be better than the first 20 and increase broad prosperity.
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