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Is our economic debate future-proof?

Democratic societies develop through pluralistic and future-oriented societal discourse. In particular, the recent crises and the great challenges of our time underline the need for a new type of discussion on tomorrow’s economy. So, what is high-quality discourse on the future like and do our current discussions on tomorrow’s economy share its characteristics?

Writer

Eeva Hellström

Senior Lead, Foresight and Strategy, Sitra

Published

This article summarises the findings of a media analysis commissioned by Sitra showing how little and how narrowly the future of the economy is discussed – both in Finland and internationally. The article also examines what kind of discourse on the economy of tomorrow is needed in a connected world and in a time of discontinuity. Finally, 10 tips for initiating and enhancing discussion on tomorrow’s economy are presented.

The media analysis covers online Finnish-language editorial media and similar selected English-language material from international media for the year 2021. Although data collected from international media that publish in English is not directly comparable to that from material written in a national language for a national audience, it offers perspectives on how the discourse could be developed in Finland and elsewhere. Namely, it is possible that the media discourse on tomorrow’s economy in other countries using their national languages may resemble the Finnish discussion more than the international one.

Missing the big picture?

Media analyses commissioned by Sitra and conducted by Meedius International Oy show that the discussion on the future of the economy in online Finnish editorial media is quite short-sighted and largely revolves around traditional economic measures with the purpose of predicting near-term developments. The perspective is typically national and the discourse is tinged with a sense of crisis, especially when discussing economic policy issues. The discussion often fails to capture the big picture, lacking visionary and bold initiatives.

What is striking is that the economy is treated as something separate from the rest of the society. Media articles are marked by a lack of a systemic approach which fails to recognise the vast connections between the economy and societal themes such as technological development, social challenges or cultural changes.

Aside from environmental issues, the voice is largely establishment based. Discussions in the Finnish media are dominated by economists working in the banking sector, lobbyists (such as representatives of business and labour market organisations) and, in economic policy matters, leading politicians.

The international debate is only slightly better

For the most part, the international media discourse on the future of the economy is very similar to that in Finland. It is also very short-sighted, focusing dominantly on traditional economic indicators, whereas less attention is paid to the cross-pollination of the economy with technological development, social challenges, environmental issues and cultural changes.

Despite these similarities, the international media discourse is slightly more varied and pluralistic, and the perspective is often more global than in Finland. There is more discussion about the reform of the economic system and familiar ideas and the usual ways of thinking are more often questioned. This is also reflected in another analysis commissioned by Sitra concerning the discussion around the initiatives for a fair and sustainable economy. The analysis shows how the initiatives that challenge present economic thinking have only slowly found their way into the public debate in Finland.

Although the international discussion is also dominated by mainstream economic experts, it appears to be slightly more multifaceted than the Finnish one. More diverse groups of experts and participants tend to contribute to the discussion and researchers and representatives of universities and international organisations are more likely to get their voices heard.

A further media analysis on public discourse on competitiveness commissioned by Sitra largely supports these findings. It reveals that competitiveness is discussed internationally in a more varied and future-oriented manner than in Finland. The analysis also shows how the Finnish debate typically aims to maintain competitiveness, whereas the international debate aims to build it.

 Materials in FinnishInternational materials in English
PolicyNational economic policy The irresponsibility of exceeding spending limits Employment, taxes and subsidiesEconomic stimulus measures as investments Global and geopolitical issues
Technology and competenceRDI funding as a driver of innovation Investment in competence development and RDI activitiesInclusivity and diversity as drivers of innovation Innovation policy and the state’s role in private-sector innovation activity Patents
Digitisation and the data economyHindrances to the development of data economy competence  Central bank digital currencies as a technology that could potentially reshape the foundations of the current economic system
EnergyLocal energy (peat and energy self-sufficiency, generating wind power in municipalities under economic stress, solar power, bioenergy)Global energy prices and resulting inflation
The environmentEnvironmental issues related to peat burning and the use of cars Strengthening the circular economyEnvironmental investments as future opportunities
Social issuesEmployment rate and pro-employment measures Labour costs and labour market flexibility Manual workLabour market transformation Knowledge work Low-wage sectors
Table. Future-oriented discussion on the economy in the media in 2021

What is a high-quality social discussion about the future of the economy like?

In a world characterised by complexity, uncertainty and tension, there is a growing need to question the prevailing assumptions and to imagine alternative futures. It is also important to interpret future-related information together with people who have varying specialities and backgrounds. New participants and new perspectives are needed to ensure that the discussion on the future of the economy highlights the way forward and focuses more on reform and on fostering the creation of ideas.

The aim should be a society in which the discourse on the economy of tomorrow is perceived as being open to anyone interested in the topic. For example, young people’s perspectives are particularly important when there is a need to consider what kinds of future questions should be addressed.

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