Participants already received their magazine copy, now it comes online: At the 48th St. Gallen Symposium in May, I interviewed Sigmar Gabriel. The former vice chancellor answers what social democracy can contribute to the debate #beyondwork.

Mr. Gabriel, Social Democratic Parties across Europe are in decline. For instance, consider the recent electoral results in Italy, Germany, and France. Does this worry you?

Of course. I was chairman of the Social Democratic Party in Germany. We have to admit that the conditions under which social democrats succeeded in the second half of the 20th century are almost gone. There used to be a strong faith in collective representation. Today, people are more individualistic. Fundamental changes in our societies make it harder for Social Democrats. Obviously, we failed to adapt to these new conditions.”

Many Social Democratic Parties are considered part of the political establishment. Meanwhile parties positioning themselves as anti-establishment are gaining momentum. Do they have better answers to the problems posed by automation?

Definitely not. Those who plead for [economic] isolation, plead for a program to create mass unemployment. Germany is a country that depends on exports like almost no other. We produce more cars and more windmills than we need. Of our exports, 60 percent go to the rest of Europe. The “Germany is a payer country that bears the burdens of Europe” narrative is plain nonsense.

The German government of Christian and Social Democrats aims at full employment. However, in other European countries, foremost in southern Europe, youth unemployment is high. How can Europe get on the same track?

Other than other countries, Germany has dual vocational education and training. A large proportion of young people are trained on the job. This way it is easier to enter the labour market after education and training than if they only learned in a classroom. This is the reason why the German model is so successful. However, it is hard to transfer. It is essential that employers accept vocational education and training as their responsibility. They do so in Germany because it is in their own interest. At the end of the day, we must invest extensively in research and development, also in southern Europe, and less in consumption. For too long, this was done wrong in Italy and Greece.

You say you are a Social Democrat and do not believe in the end of work. Why?

Until now, history has shown us differently. I can imagine that, if not politically guided, work will be distributed unevenly. There will be people who are well-paid and work a lot, and people who work very little and do not get much for what they do.

What makes this position specifically social democratic?

We want to make sure that this inequality does not develop. So far, we have understood labour market flexibility in a way that meant employees had to adapt to their employers’ needs. Automation offers a chance to do this in favour of the employee. I compare it to the union’s campaign for the five-day week in 1963. It was not about getting a day off work. The unions’ posters advertised it with a boy saying: “Daddy is mine on Saturdays.” Working and living should go more hand in hand. To shape this is a genuine task of social democracy.

What answers do social democrats have for automation and for the increasing gap between well-paid, high-qualified jobs, and precarious work?

There is not a single answer. It is very important to create a new form of social security to which people entrust their own future and that of their children. This includes the question of how we deal with the future of work in a digital world? Jobs requiring middle and higher qualifications will be endangered too, including insurance brokers, bank clerks, designers or engineers.

What do you tell a bank clerk who won’t be needed in ten to five years?

I cannot comment on every single job. I know that there will be better-qualified jobs left, and I know that the human-oriented service sector – jobs like teachers and nurses — will actually increase in size. For mid-level jobs, it may mean talking about a shift in qualifications.

You proposed an employment account (German: Erwerbstätigenkonto). Is that a model that could be a solution for other countries, not only for Germany?

Yes. The idea is that every employee, trainee, or student gets some sort of financial contribution. They can use the money for the time they upgrade their skills or the time they are unemployed. The question is, how can it be financed? It could be a way to bring the added value from automation to the social security system. Why shouldn’t Amazon, Google, or Facebook contribute to the stability of our society?

Sigmar Gabriel was Vice Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 2013 to 2018 and previously served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Economic Affairs and Minister of Energy. He served as chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany from 2009 to 2017, and promoted centrist, socially liberal, and pro-business positions. He started his career in state politics in the federal state of Lower Saxony, where he still holds a district as a member of the German Bundestag. At the 48th St. Gallen Symposium, Gabriel delivered a speech entitled “Challenges for Europe in the new international constellation – perspectives for work, innovation and economic prosperity.”

The interview was exclusively published at the magazine of the 48th St. Gallen Symposium and is available online here.