[BLOG] It's an Unequal World. But does it need to be?

A young couple begs for money in Brussels’ luxury shopping district in Avenue Louise. Photo credit: Jan Mayrhofer 

By Jan Mayrhofer


I work and live in Brussels’ European quarter. The grey, corporate atmosphere in Europe’s political powerhouse makes it feel like a separate city within the more diverse city of Brussels. Here, it is easy to ignore and escape the hidden and insidious inequality that is all around us. It is only every so often that I am confronted with images of inequality such as the one I photographed last year.

Once in a while, the news reports the latest figures on inequality. Today, eight super-rich men who could fit around a dining table own the same wealth as the bottom half of the global population - 3.6 billion (3,600,000,000) people. Such numbers can be hard to grasp and easy to forget.  

But there is one story on inequality that has stuck. It’s a story that has been re-told for decades; the story of meritocracy. It is based on the idea that all of us can work hard to unleash our potential and climb the ladder of success. Anyone can make it. It’s the American dream. The story goes that eventually, wealth will trickle down to benefit everyone. Inequality is just something that we have to accept if we want societal progress. There is no alternative.

There are many problems with this idea that young generations especially are coming face to face with. That hard work alone can ensure ‘economic success’ is just one of the myths. Despite being perhaps the most well-educated generation of young people to date, youth around the world experience unprecedented levels of inequality. In 2014, young people became the group at greatest risk of poverty in the OECD. A stunning 43% of the global youth labour force is either unemployed or working but living in poverty.

Behind these numbers are people and their stories. The young couple in the photo migrated from Romania seeking better prospects than those available in their home country. Being confronted with such scenes of inequality makes you wonder. Is it right for some people to be born with a silver spoon in the mouth while others are born into abject poverty? Most people would say that it isn’t. Income inequality is in the top three of what concerns young people. But what can we do about it?

There are two basic ways to create a more equal society. Imagine you have two children. You buy them both ice cream. The first way is to buy one child three scoops of ice cream and your other child only one scoop. To make it more equal you then take away one of the scoops and give it to the other child. This will likely start a fight between your children and make one of them cry. It’s called taxation. The other way is to give them both two scoops of ice cream in the first place. It’s called ‘new economy’.   

The good news is that the ‘new economy’ already exists within our old economy. It all starts with democracy. Democracy lets people speak their minds and shape their own and their children’s futures. In many ways, democracy has been one the greatest ideas in human history.

But if we care about democracy in the public sphere, why are most of us willing to give it up in the economic sphere? If you are working for a company or even in the public sector, and you are not running your organisation, there is a big chance you have very little or no influence on the decisions your organisation makes.

There is an alternative. In so-called worker cooperatives, employees are called members, and they vote in all strategic decisions, similar to shareholders in a corporation. But the difference with corporations is that in a worker cooperative, one person gets only one vote. Just like in a democracy.

It is hardly surprising that cooperative structures lead to much more equal outcomes. Imagine everyone in your workplace would have a say in the payment structure. Would you choose to pay your boss 147 times what you get? (147:1 is the average pay ratio in traditional companies in Germany, in the US it is 354:1). In most cooperatives, the pay ratio is one to one, or sometimes it is a bit higher. For example, in one of the biggest cooperatives in the world, the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country of Spain, which has more than 70,000 workers, the pay ratio is one to six.

A new story about inequality has been emerging in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008: the story of ‘the 99%’. It’s a story championed by young people about using people power to fight extreme inequality and it has been growing ever since. Now it’s time to put people power into practice. Cooperatives and other democratic forms of organisations in the ‘new economy’ might just be the right vehicle to empower people to build an economy that benefits everyone, not just the privileged few.


This article is part of a series on the some of the things that need to change for a sustainable future and the role of young people in the process.

Also read our other blogs:

Why we need to care about Sustainable Development

Not another “AAAH! Robots are stealing our jobs!!!” article

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