In a recent speech on Malta’s current economic situation, Central Bank governor Mario Vella referred to ‘liquid modernity’, the sociological concept attributed to Zygmunt Bauman.
This concept refers to freedom and precariousness in contemporary society, where individuals face uncertainty and ambivalence in fluid contexts. Here, people are modern nomads who flow through changing sites, situations and identities, having no choice but to make choices.
Vella quoted Bauman’s statement that: “The growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago ‘to be modern’ meant to chase ‘the final state of perfection’ – now it means an infinity of improvement, with no ‘final state’ in sight and none desired.”
In this regard, the Central Bank governor warned that unless there are more females in employment, Malta risks increased reliance on automated workers and artificial intelligence. He also referred to impacts concerning Malta’s growing population amid an influx of foreign workers. These include a myriad of realities such as unaffordable housing for many people.
Vella also argued that the current situation cannot be amended by going to some form of unrealistic nostalgia. Instead, we should be aware and able to navigate in the complex realities of our time.
Here, Vella reminded me of two other influential sociologists: Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck, both of whom emphasise the risks and opportunities of our times.
I subscribe to the point of view that there is no such thing as a risk-free society and there is no such thing as a be-all-end-all solution for the challenges we face. There are things we can do, however.
We can strive to have economic and social policies that equip us to cope well with the ambiguities of a liquid modern society, but which also retain a central place for mechanisms that protect people from falling into poverty.
Malta is giving too little importance to the sustainability of the pensions of tomorrow and at the same time is failing to ensure adequate pensions today
Our insecurities and anxieties can be pooled through policy systems and mechanisms provided by both public and private sectors. Pensions is a case in point. Indeed, I believe that currently Malta is giving too little importance to the sustainability of the pensions of tomorrow and at the same time is failing to ensure adequate pensions today.
Policy institutions should be more proactive and flexible, reinviting themselves within a changing society, rather than being ossified in bureaucratic hurdles, ideological rigidity and tribal mentalities that add risks to persons experiencing precariousness.
The latter require various forms of policymaking, and these are not always a question of economic incentives and financial assistance, important as they are. Policies may also include emotional, moral and communitarian initiatives that enable persons to construct their personal biographies, build social networks and integrate within society.
In the field of social policy, there are areas where Malta is coping well in this regard. Welfare-to-work policies, childcare and in-work benefits enable people to empower themselves through employment. But at the same time, there are many people who are increasingly facing social exclusion for one reason or another.
Some simply cannot cope with cost of living increases, and thus can be categorised to be within the working poor. Others do not own their housing and are facing a brave new world of unaffordable rent or loans.
Others experience ‘invisible’ social problems such as mental health, loneliness, lack of social integration, breakdown of social links and lack of online connectivity. And others may be employed in low-quality jobs.
Such situations can be identified through research methods that go beyond and add value to quantitative statistics. Social impact assessments and qualitative research methods can help provide valuable evidence to policymakers on risks and opportunities being faced today. And a range of short-term and long-term policies can help tackle them.
Amid the liquid context we are experiencing, I belive that Malta requires a policy set-up that comprises political, policy, scholarly, civil society and other representatives that can engage in constructive dialogue and proposals.
Malta owes this to itself and especially to the groups of people who engage in their liquid lives in silence, but whose realities are as real as those of more vociferous groups.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece