"Don't delegate your own responsibilities."
Entrepreneur and philanthropist Jobst Wagner worries about the Swiss economy and civil society. That's why he's rewarding smart ideas for Switzerland's future.
Mr. Wagner, your company has around 20,000 employees. For many years, unemployment was the top concern in the Credit Suisse Worry Barometer. Since last year, it has been ranked fifth. How do you explain this?
Studies show that job loss causes greater emotional stress than the serious illness of a family member or pregnancy – it's understandable that respondents are afraid of this traumatic experience. The very low rate of unemployment today has likely tempered this fear somewhat. I have to admit that I'm of two minds about this issue.
In what sense?
I'm happy about the job security for employees, but the shortage of skilled personnel is a major issue for companies. We're looking for technicians, engineers, we train them ourselves – but it's just not enough. Sometimes we don't have the staff to implement important projects in fields such as digitalization. The respondents are very satisfied with economic issues.
With the strong Swiss franc, growing trade barriers, and the aforementioned personnel shortage, how can this be?
We can thank the many companies that have economized so well in recent years, increasing their competitiveness, efficiency and capacity for innovation. But we have to be careful: There's no juice left to squeeze from this lemon!
The current situation would seem to demand supportive measures such as lower taxes, or eliminating unnecessary and costly fees. Instead, the opposite is happening. Conditions for doing business are getting worse, and the supposedly deregulated labor market corresponds less and less to reality. And more trouble is on the horizon. Switzerland's reputation rests on predictability – but negotiations with Europe have stalled, the inheritance tax initiative that was rejected in 2015 would have been retroactive, and the new OECD tax regime could mean that companies are no longer taxed only at the site of value creation. Uncertainty is growing.
Isn't that rather alarmist?
Fewer foreign companies are moving to Switzerland, and direct investment is shrinking, too. This should give us pause for thought. We're an automotive supplier, and the numbers are going down. Others are struggling, too – the chemicals and machinery industries, for example – and the financial sector is feeling the pressure. There are exceptions, such as the construction and real estate sector, public administration, IT and pharmaceuticals. But in other areas, the mood is tense.
Despite economic confidence, 41 percent of respondents believe that the economy often fails in key areas. This figure was only 23 percent in 2017. Why do you think that is?
This is where we need to take a critical look at ourselves. Too often we business leaders don't stand up and show our true colors, particularly when we make mistakes. We're also living in uncertain times. There's a lack of political stability, and populism is gaining the upper hand. Many people have the uneasy feeling that they're losing control, that they're the puppets of those in power – whoever that might be.
And this is reflected in attitudes toward politics; 46 percent feel that the political system is failing in key areas.
The traditional parties aren't being honest, and they're opening the door for populist movements. I'm looking for leadership. The Federal Council negotiated an institutional framework agreement with the EU for four years, and then took no position on the draft text. It doesn't explain enough and provides too few options. The same is true of pensions; here, too, no one is telling it like it is. If we live longer, we'll have to work longer. This is how politicians lose credibility. But actually, your question bothers me.
I think it's bad to separate the economy and politics. Pointing fingers doesn't help either side; we're all in the same boat. We all have a social responsibility to fulfill.
An appeal to civil society?
Yes, you can't delegate your own responsibility. Everyone should ask themselves: Have I voted? Do I belong to an association? Am I helping the disadvantaged? My contribution is the StrategieDialog21 foundation, which over the past six years has developed a broad network – reaching across different parties and walks of life – for an open, innovative, bold and free Switzer land. We promote constructive dialogue that is essential for direct democracy.
How exactly does this work?
In Challenge21, young entrepreneurs and seasoned executives meet to discuss current challenges. This year's topic was artificial intelligence. Through the "Wunsch-Schloss" national ideas competition, we're looking for projects for an innovative Switzerland. Every citizen has the chance to enter and redefine Switzerland. The top prize is a meeting with all of the general secretaries of the main Swiss parties, and many members of the National Council and the Council of States attend the grand final. We also promote research and book projects. "5vor12" is about bureaucracy; we're working together with the Swiss Venture Club to look for concrete solutions.
"5vor12" rewards what it calls good regulations. What are those?
A good regulation doesn't coerce citizens, but rather encourages them to exercise good sense – giving them a nudge, so to speak. The costs of a good regulation are not excessive, and first we make sure that it's even needed at all. Of course, it would be better to eliminate certain regulations altogether, but unfortunately Switzerland lacks the political will for greater deregulation.