For about twenty years now the concept of human capital has become increasingly popular among economists. It is about time!
By human capital we mean the fact that every human being is the depositary of personal capital made up of experience, knowledge, intelligence and spirit. It is the first of the resources. It is the starting point of all that we call the civilisation process, despite the fact that this is a long way from reaching an acceptable level. It is the principal factor of economic, artistic, technological, scientific and social production.
In this very broad sense, we are all capitalists, more or less endowed. And it can be extrapolated that this human capital is what drove primitive man to sharpen a stone into a knife, then light fire and subsequently to invent the wheel. The violin, the aeroplane and telecommunications followed through a long series of civilisation and art forms. Moments of crisis like wars or natural disasters and those caused by our own species are not to be forgotten. So far, however, we have always picked ourselves up.
During the Industrial Revolution a particular form of capital came to light, the one represented by the accumulation of money. The origin of this phenomenon is easy to understand: man during the Industrial Revolution had to spend increasingly more time making tools in order to make his economic activities more efficacious. It required little to make primitive bows and arrows, whereas the construction of a railway engine took more time. A “logistic” problem arises: one cannot consume tools; however, those who produce them must survive just the same. So it was necessary to take or save a part of consumption so that the whole system can function. Money was indispensable to the operation of these transfers. Savings in the form of money became investment “capital” for the production of equipment.
The concept of human capital once again and implicitly suggests the idea of the human value of economic activity, as defined by Adam Smith, the founder of the first coherent theory of economics, more than two centuries ago.
Today monetary capital is subject to economic evolution. During the golden age of the Industrial Revolution the essential thing was the organisation of productive investment. Today in an economy dominated by service activity, savings are increasingly used for dealing with “maintenance and repair” costs, for paying health expenses, pensions, for accidents and natural and human risks. We are speaking of reserves accumulated by a great variety of insurance and welfare institutions, both public and private. The reference point for the utilisation of monetary capital is no longer only investment in production goods, but increasingly in “maintenance” activities, based on future expenses for more or less probable occurrences.
But let us return to human beings, to the capital that we represent both individually and collectively. Fundamentally then, we all start as capitalists. The big question is knowing whether this capital has opportunities for development, for enrichment. Human capital can be open to different forms and conditions. It can even be badly used, whether because of suffocating social obligations or of our lack of will.
There exists a kind of waste of human capital which is this book’s ambition to denounce and it is the one that even today too often relegates the whole population between 60 and 65 and the 80s into the “old” category. It is a blatant waste that, taking into account the changes in people’s life cycles, must no longer be tolerated.
These are the reasons for the plea made in the next chapter in the form of an open letter so that the behaviour might change. We are dealing with a double battle. On the one hand, and in the great majority of cases, the society in which we live is organised in daily experience and in its psychological reactions in accordance with old habits that place the over sixty fives among the “old”, i.e. those people who are “out of the loop”. We are being told repeatedly for decades that at 65 years of age we are “old” and we are often tempted to believe it.
Subjected to this pressure we are sometimes at risk of accepting this role of “old” that is based in effect on social prejudices but which coincides increasingly less with our potential, with the real value of our human capital. Of course it is not always easy and things do not function automatically. It is necessary to accept a certain decrease in strength and physical vigour, but is a 30 year old tennis player perhaps “old” because he no longer manages to win tournaments against a young eighteen year old opponent? This is why, making the most of the possibilities offered by modern society and economy, founded on service activity, it is essential that partial or part time work be considered the true basis for employment.
If the very young often make mistakes due to inexperience, older people must be absolutely capable of ridding themselves of every temptation towards errors due to an “excess of experience”. We are speaking of all those cases in which so-called experience is used as an excuse for not listening to or taking into consideration other perspectives. We must always know how to choose: the horse drawn carriage works very well, and so does the Venice gondola and both must be preserved, but not to the point of disapproving other forms of transport. We must take the opportunity offered by new computers to have the young explain how they work, an excellent opportunity for creating a dialogue of trust between generations and for making us feel more “productive”.
One day, twenty five years ago, I was waiting at the bus stop behind which there was a sailing school. In the window there was a placard that read “Learn to sail – immediately!” The bus was not in sight and so I entered. Why not, after all. And I enrolled. Frankly I had not expected that, at the first lesson, all the other pupils would be under sixteen years of age. They were a little astonished but proud of carrying out the manoeuvres more quickly than me. A little slow, the “oldie”. But, so what? I was proud of having challenged a habit and an attitude without thinking about it. A small amused smile compensated for my lack of elasticity.
I passed the final exam brilliantly, despite the fact that horrible weather on the lake had not allowed the policeman to board the boat. I carried out all the manoeuvres correctly and calmly.
Let us learn, therefore, in mature age, to jettison certain experiences or certain acquired attitudes that, like a ballast, block all our possible progress. The young too must learn. Let us together, then, make the most of our opportunities. It is up to us to accept, within our acknowledged limits, all the opportunities open to us. And let us begin by adapting the means of learning to our needs. For example by exploring the possibilities of the “Double Helix”.
1. The “Double Helix”
The first part of this chapter concentrates on the necessity for a profound change of behaviour in relation to the age bands of the over sixty-sixty-five year olds.
The next paragraphs are devoted to a series of propositions that reassume the contents of two books to which I contributed. The first, already mentioned, written with Patrick Liedtke, on Full Employment in the Service Economy (Economica: Paris, 2000) and La Doppia Elica* just finished in English with the principal contribution of Mircea Malitza of the Club of Rome, who recently celebrated his 82nd birthday.
The image of the Double Helix relates to the DNA structure, the constituent biological element of living beings. We use it here to underline the growing interaction in our lives between productive activity (such as work) and education (learning and training). However, it must be stressed that while the genetic helix is an unchanging datum for every individual, the double helix of learning and practice is in a permanent state of construction and is subject to numerous modifications in its orientation.
A true story will help the reader to understand better. Jean is the son of a seaman, born and raised to adolescence on the French Atlantic coast. The family vocation is so strong that at the age of 16, after attending compulsory schooling from ages 6-14, followed by two years of technical schooling, Jean starts embarking on a fishing smack. At sea for two years, he works and learns everything concerning mechanical plants and the operation of the sails.
At 18, he goes back to school, completes secondary school and follows a short course in fishery culture. Three years later, he obtains a job in an aquaculture company where he remains for three years. He then enrols in a marine biology school and studies for two years. Between the ages of 26 and 30 he works for a government marine ecology institute and completes his university studies. His experience allows him to work for five years in a research institute, and then to crown it all he spends two years studying for a doctorate degree.
At 40 years of age Jean begins to teach in a school where he also has the opportunity to follow a course on the economics of fishery culture for a year. Over the following five years he works as a consultant for a sea-products business. He leaves that to set up his own business and devotes himself to the study of museums until he becomes the head of an aquarium from the age of 55 to 60. A developing country asks him to set up a similar institution to which he then devotes himself for two more years. This experience persuades him to study the economics of developing countries and for a year he works as a government consultant on sustainable development. At the age of 65 he becomes an Associate Professor in an important university in his own country. Then he works as a volunteer on various development projects for a non-governmental organisation. From 71 to 75 he is President of a foundation that deals with the same kind of projects. Finally he becomes department President of an oceanography academy.
Here then is a path of 60 years of active life. Jean has changed the orientation of his activity over the last twenty years. He has carried out to their conclusion seven different types of education; he has changed work thirteen times, in a total of 48 years. He has also been a volunteer. Where is it ever possible to find references to journeys of this kind in employment mobility statistics? Or in those that relate to education?
Of course here we are dealing with a privileged case. However, a good part of the privilege derives from Jean’s own will to fully make the most of his personal capital and to develop it. It must also be admitted, however, that the key to his case lies essentially in the interconnection of work and education. Moreover, length of the life cycle permitted Jean to see the link that is created between him and the evolution of the whole society. A society which, by offering twenty more years of active life, allows individuals to be fulfilled and the social body to be better organised. Here is a direction for economic and social policies to follow, so that this transition, in the midst of which we already find ourselves, is not transformed into confusion, instead of highlighting the enormous source of human capital that it is possible to realise.
* “The Double Helix of Learning and Work”, UNESCO . CEPES, Bucharest, 2003