Does Europe need a new social contract?

As the social safety net breaks down, social innovation has a role in unlocking resources in the community.

By Deirdre Mortell Social Innovation Fund Ireland

Since the 1940s it has been understood that each generation will have the same, or better, standard of living as their parents. No more.

Millennials are the first generation who can’t be sure their living standards will even match that of their parents.

The social safety net is breaking down – the cost of social protection is being transferred from employers to employees through low or no pension contributions and a growing gig economy. There is also the end of jobs, while the associated ability to plan for your family’s future, as healthcare and education costs are rising steadily.

In a new social contract, what do young people want? What we all want, surely – dignity.

What does dignity look like? A future to look forward to with confidence – access to decent work for decent pay with social protections to act as a safety net when things don’t go according to plan – affordable housing, and a pension in old age.

What do older people want? Dignity too.

What does dignity look like in older age? The freedom to age well in my own home, some human company and social interaction, a pension to support me in my old age, affordable healthcare and housing, and safety and security.

Wealth distribution

We are told that Ireland and Europe can’t afford these luxuries that give dignity to our citizens at different stages in our lives. But we have more wealth in Europe than we have ever had.

It’s a question of wealth distribution, not wealth per se.

Increases in labour productivity globally have not been matched by real increases in pay since the 1970s. Instead, the returns have transferred from labour to capital, which has made record returns in recent decades.

So does this mean that different generations need to compete for limited resources? Is it a choice of education or access to affordable housing for young people versus healthcare for older people?

Social Innovation can play a role in mobilising resources in a more efficient way that can eliminate the tensions between the needs of different groups – whether different generations, between citizens and migrants, or other groups in this context.

Mobilising resources

Many older people live in houses that are now too large for their needs, but it is home.

Several groups in Ireland and Europe have come up with models that invite younger people in need of affordable housing to live, at cheap rent with older people who seek companionship and a sense of security. This may be students, survivors of domestic violence or any group that needs stable temporary accommodation at a fair rent.

In Ireland Generation Accommodation, a student housing project, and Elderhomeshare have developed different models to address this issue.

Failte Isteach is a service that twins older volunteers in the community with migrants wishing to learn English for language, conversation, and possibly friendship.

It reinforces the sense of community for both groups, recognises the important role of older people in the community and builds social interaction into their lives. English classes are free.

Living independently at home as an older person may require home help services to maintain independence. In Ireland, we will need 20,000 more workers in the care sector in the next 10-20 years to cater for this.

Our population will not provide this so we will need to seek the help of migrants from other countries to help.

One group of migrants care workers have come together to form a social enterprise because they want to spend more time and give more personal care to their older clients, while also being paid a decent wage for decent work and hours.

A social enterprise owned and managed by migrant care staff is a solution that meets the needs of both workers and older clients by potentially increasing the quality and personal level of care.

Social innovation means delivering an innovative solution to a key social issue. It has a key role to play as the world we live in changes rapidly, but people’s needs are constant – dignity, security, companionship and a sense of community.

Social enterprise and social innovation hold the key to mobilising local and national resources in a different way to unlock resources in the community.

Deirdre Mortell is the chief executive of Social Innovation Fund Ireland

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