Recent events at the start of 2012 offer a glimpse of the struggles that lay ahead, both in the United States and abroad. From the Occupy Wall Street movement, to young people airing their grievances throughout the Middle East and beyond, all these events are indicative of a larger and more fundamental issue. The issue is one that President Obama framed for Americans clearly in his State of the Union Address:
"The basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement...[is] the defining issue of our time...how to keep the promise alive... No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important...we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
President Obama's call for a change to the status quo is based on the fact that income inequality in the United States has risen in the past three decades and real median wages have stagnated. These issues are not unique to the American economy. In fact, the challenge that President Obama spoke of, is the same challenge facing other world leaders today. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said: "The most consequential question facing nation(s)...is whether leaders will let their people live up to their God-given potential and claim their place at the heart of the 21st century..."
In fact, the problem of economic inequality manifests itself in various forms around the globe. The unemployed, young graduates, the working poor, and men and women in the formal and informal sector are desperate for their voices to be heard -- in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. They are looking for their leaders to provide policies that address inequality and social inclusiveness, issues that if ignored, will only lead to further social unrest and political instability.
Indeed, even during discussion at the yearly gathering of world leaders from business, politics, media, and academia at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in January, there was unanimous agreement by senior economic figures that "growing inequality should now be the priority for leaders after the economic crisis." The figures from the economic fall-out of the global crisis are staggering -- especially for youth unemployment. In the United States, the youth unemployment rate is 23 percent, in Spain it is close to 50 percent, and in some parts of the Arab world it is almost 90 percent. In fact, some business leaders at Davos warned of "a disaster and a ticking time bomb," as the demographics of countries such as Jordan, where 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, come to the forefront. Others pointed to the possibility of a "lost generation," as government policies have failed to address these problems in a timely manner.
So what policy options are available to world leaders? Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the co-chair of the Secretary's Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society, spoke at Davos about labor, promoting five key principles: "Jobs -- it is workers in work who will drive the global economy out of crisis... Social Protection, sustainable demand and decent work -- measures to mitigate social inequality are crucial to building a fairer, more stable global economy... Financial regulation... Fair and Progressive Taxation... [and] Climate Action."
World leaders must listen to their citizens and allow them the opportunity to live in dignity through decent work. As the world struggles to emerge from the global recession and ongoing financial turmoil, we need to ensure that the global economy is bounded by rules that ensure that its prosperity is widely shared, and that it serves to empower, not exploit workers. The promotion and protection of core worker rights are fundamental to strong and durable democracies. The inclusion of women, young people, and of those who labor in the informal sector are essential to building a vibrant sustainable global economy.