DAVOS, Switzerland — Leaders of the world’s largest and most powerful companies are on edge. A decade after the financial crisis, their businesses are thriving and their pocketbooks are overflowing, but they worry about populism and the threat it poses to the global order they helped build.
Many executives gathered at the exclusive World Economic Forum last week acknowledged that inequality is a major problem fueling populist backlash, and that some middle-class jobs in the West are being lost to trade and automation (even though more jobs overall are being created around the world).
A few business leaders in Davos went so far as compare today’s situation to the late 19th century, an era when tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew W. Mellon, and John D. Rockefeller amassed huge fortunes while most in the working class toiled under harsh conditions.
“We’re living in a Gilded Age,” said Scott Minerd, chief investment officer of Guggenheim Partners, which manages more than $265 billion in assets. “I think, in America, the aristocrats are out of touch. They don’t understand the issues around the common man.”
The solution to inequality, many in Davos said, is “upskilling” people so that they can obtain better jobs in the digital economy.
“The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed,” Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of Blackstone, told a panel. “That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”
Schwarzman, whose net worth is estimated at $13 billion, said it is “up to the grown-ups” to make digital upskilling happen in K-12 schools.
His calls were echoed by others, including Ruth Porat, chief financial officer at Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Keith Block, co-chief executive of Salesforce; C Vijayakumar, chief executive of HCL Technologies; and Michael Dell, founder of Dell Technologies.
“All of us collectively can do quite a lot to create opportunities so that everybody is included in this growth,” said Dell, who is worth an estimated $28 billion. “It’s going to require lots of new skills, capabilities.”
Dell said the issue goes beyond K-12 education and that companies need to train workers continuously. His own company struggles with finding enough skilled workers, and poaching them from other companies doesn’t work, Dell added. “You need to hire and train and grow them from within.”
At a meeting of the International Business Council on the sidelines of Davos, chief executives pledged their companies would train “more than 17 million people globally.”
Salesforce and PwC championed in-house training platforms in which employees can earn rewards for taking online courses in coding and acquiring other digital skills.
However, the World Economic Forum acknowledged that private-sector efforts would probably fall short. In a report released earlier this month, the forum estimated it would cost the United States $34 billion to reskill the 1.37 million workers expected to lose their jobs to automation in the next decade. The forum said 86 percent of the cost “would likely fall on the government.”
“Upskilling is not going to alter the insecurities and inequalities,” said Guy Standing, author of “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” who spoke on four panels at Davos this year. He said most executives still don’t understand what is needed.
Standing said calls for more education and training were a “cop-out,” and that the result would undoubtedly help only a small number of people, which in turn could bring down wages and status in whatever new jobs they went on to obtain.
A study in 2015 by economists Brad Hershbein, Melissa Kearney and Lawrence Summers postulated what would happen if 10 percent of American men, ages 25 to 64, who did not have a bachelor’s degree suddenly obtained one. They found that it would improve pay and job prospects for the men who earned the degrees, but would do little to reduce the inequality gap because the richest Americans have so much more income and wealth.
There’s also the question of who would pay for education and re-skilling. Democrats like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have proposed higher income taxes on the rich, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is set to unveil a proposal for a new tax on wealth.