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Johann Schneider-Ammann: "Immigration was already an important issue when I was young"

Economic Affairs Minister Johann N. Schneider-Ammann talks about what young people in Switzerland want, their attitudes toward foreigners and why he chose not to follow in his father's footsteps.

Mr. Schneider-Ammann, how would you characterize young people in Switzerland?

Johann N. Schneider-Ammann: The overwhelming majority of Swiss youth are curious, interested in the world around them and willing to get involved and take on responsibility. In that respect, they don't differ fundamentally from previous generations. Today, however, social media and the rapid changes that are taking place in that arena pose additional challenges for young people. There is a greater need to set limits and define priorities.

What are the most difficult issues facing today's 16- to 25-year-olds?

There's no single answer to that question. It is clear, however, that an aging society, inadequate resources, climate change and security issues will present significant challenges.

It is in our youth that we set the course for the future, for example by choosing a training program or a career. What youthful decisions had a particularly significant impact on your own life?

I attended an academic high school, and my father, a veterinarian, would have liked me to take over his practice. But I quickly realized that this wasn't the right path for me, and decided instead to study electrical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. Switzerland has an excellent education system, and – a particularly important point – it is much easier than in the past to change schools or courses of study. It is relatively easy for young people to shift gears without wasting too much time. Vocational training isn't a one-way street, nor is an academic education. But having a broader range of choices doesn't necessarily mean that it is easier to reach a decision.

It has become even more difficult to motivate this age group to participate in political life.

Once again, the Youth Barometer has shown that today's young people have little connection to the political sphere. Neither political parties nor youth organizations are particularly popular. How do you explain this?

In the past, the main options for young people were scouting or athletic clubs, and later on university-based student organizations. Today there are far more activities to choose from, and people are less tied to a specific location. And even in the past, political parties were not exactly overrun with young people. But because there are so many opportunities, it has become even more difficult to motivate this age group to participate in political life.

Swiss young people consider it very important to achieve a balance between their personal lives and their jobs. They attach less importance to climbing the career ladder or achieving a higher standard of living than their parents. Will this mindset affect the future of the Swiss economy?

As I mentioned before, today there are far more leisure-time activities to choose from. Such activities are an opportunity to relax and recover from the stresses of working life. Clearly people are demanding a better balance between their jobs and their personal lives. But at the same time, I see large numbers of young people who are ambitious and determined to do well in their careers. Only a short time ago, some very bright students visited me in my office. What our economy will look like in the future – that depends on other factors too, not just on the willingness of young people to work hard.

Switzerland

Switzerland's Old Age and Survivors' Insurance (AHV) is a perennial theme in the CS Worry Barometer. In the Youth Barometer, too, respondents mention retirement provision as one of the top three problems and one that is becoming increasingly pressing. How can we safeguard our retirement insurance system?

The Altersvorsoge 2020 retirement provision package has been approved by the Federal Council, and parliamentary deliberations are now underway. The goal of this reform is to safeguard the current level of the first and second pillars of the system (Old Age and Survivors' Insurance and the mandatory pension fund), as well as to adjust benefits in accordance with changes in society's needs and to provide adequate funding. We have long recognized this problem, and it appears that we are closer to finding a solution. The proposals encompass a wide range of measures that, taken together, are designed to produce a balanced result.

Young people also regard issues related to foreigners and asylum as an increasingly important problem. Relations with foreigners are tense. Many young people believe that racism and xenophobia are serious problems. What can be done to reduce these tensions?

These are problems that concern not only our youth, but society as a whole – as evidenced by the vote in February 2014 in favor of the initiative to put a halt to mass immigration. Let me remind you, however, that immigration was also a major issue when I was young, a topic of discussion at local pubs, at work and in schools. So far, Switzerland has always been relatively successful at integrating refugees and immigrants into our society, despite repeated complaints that "the boat is full." I hope that we will be able to maintain our open approach, while also drawing clear lines to prevent abuses.

We need free access to the European market.

One of the biggest immediate challenges for Switzerland relates to our European policy; a majority of young people favor maintaining our bilateral agreements. Given the possible termination of the agreement on the free movement of persons, in the wake of the referendum on February 9, 2014, the question is what happens now.

Various groups in our country believe that we are strong enough to go it alone, and they are constantly belittling the importance of our bilateral agreements with the EU. My response is clear: This view is irresponsible. We need free access to the European market if we want our companies to continue to produce their goods domestically and provide jobs. After all, one out of every two francs we earn comes from abroad, and two-thirds of our exports go to the EU. That's why I argue in favor of a differentiated kind of openness. This means regulating immigration here at home, while we maintain our bilateral agreements.

Asked what measures they would like policymakers to take in connection with the internet, 77 percent of respondents say that they want protection against criminals accessing their digital information. Is the government doing too little in this regard?

Internet-based crime poses a challenge for authorities. After all, this is a new kind of crime, with entirely new dimensions. The perpetrators are often working abroad, while we have a cantonal and national crinimal prosecution system. These criminals also act very quickly, and they know how to disguise their identities. Swiss law has not yet determined who is responsible for prosecuting cybercrime – the cantons or the federal government.

Swiss youth are not as "digitalized" as their peers in the United States, Brazil or Singapore – in particular, they prefer to engage in personal interactions offline. Are they simply behind the curve, or do they make a clearer distinction between on- and offline?

Like you, I can only speculate. I'm obviously a member of a generation that uses digital tools, but not nearly to the same extent as young people do.

It is interesting to note that in the US, unemployment is the most urgent problem for young people (50%), while it ranks ninth in Switzerland (22%). What accounts for this difference, in your view?

It's about the numbers. The youth unemployment rate is much lower in Switzerland than in the United States. In June of 2015, the Swiss unemployment rate for 15- to 24-year-olds was 2.8 percent; in the US, that figure was over 10 percent. I'm very pleased that our rate is so low. Young people are our future. They need opportunities. I am doing everything in my power to ensure that every young person in Switzerland has access to training, a job and a future.

When you think back to your own youth, where do you see the biggest differences compared with today's younger generation?

The most striking change is undoubtedly the fast pace of life in the modern world. The digital age has transformed many aspects of our everyday lives. Just think: When I was a child, not every household owned a telephone, let alone a television set. And we still used typewriters. Today's young people have grown up in a digital environment, and they perceive the world very differently. Everything has become much "smaller," and distances are much shorter. But that's not a value judgment. The world is simply changing. We need to look to the future.

What were you like as a teenager?

I imagine I was typical for the times, a person who was securely rooted in his environment and got along very well – a very ordinary teenager.