The OECD has defined the Covid-19 pandemic as the third and greatest economic, financial and social shock of the 21st Century. In the coming months, when we begin to think of the future beyond the current crisis, we need to build a new social contract that can repair our economy and society in the Covid-19 aftermath, and that can withstand future shocks.
With more than 200,000 jobs lost in the space of a fortnight, and our economy essentially in a ''deep freeze'', we need a social contract that can steer our society and our economy along the difficult road ahead.
The social contract is the, often unwritten, agreement whereby citizens contribute to the common good - whether economically, socially or culturally - on the assumption that the State will provide a minimum standard of living, essential social services and infrastructure, and the protection of their basic rights.
A key part of the social contract is solidarity between generations. At different points in the life cycle, all of us will be either net beneficiaries from, or net contributors to, society. This differs, depending on whether we are children, adults of working age, or pensioners.
One of the core components of a social contract in a modern democratic society is that citizens may expect access to meaningful work, sufficient income and basic services, as well as protection from poverty.
In return, citizens have a responsibility to contribute to society in different ways at different points in the life cycle. This may be through being employed; through paying taxes; through engaging in caring and voluntary work; or making other contributions to the economic, social, cultural or environmental wellbeing of society.
''Business as usual'' is not an acceptable option following the Covid-19 pandemic. Its impact on the economy and society shows that we need a new social contract that can meet current needs and adapt to future shocks. Even after the worst of the pandemic health crisis has passed, we will be left with an employment crisis and its consequent economic and social impacts, of which we in Ireland are well aware.
We know that the world of work is changing, but the Covid-19 pandemic has supercharged this change. It will fundamentally alter how our society organises income distribution, work and participation.
We know that digital transformation was already disrupting the labour market. Globally, tens of millions of existing jobs will be lost, and new jobs will be created, many in yet-to-exist industries. In Ireland, it is estimated that two out of every five jobs will be impacted. The jobs that will be created will not necessarily be in the same regions where job losses will be felt. What is most concerning is the potential of this digital transformation to worsen existing socio-economic inequalities and the urban-rural divide.
We need to re-imagine the interaction of employment and work, taxation, infrastructure and welfare and give serious consideration to new policies such as a Universal Basic Income. The economy of the future needs to recognise people's right to meaningful work and needs to operationalise this right even when sufficient jobs are not available for all those seeking employment.
A Universal Basic Income is a policy that should form part of a new social contract. It is a universal non-conditional payment from government, paid regardless of income or wealth, at the same level to everyone on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement. It is tax-free, with all other personal income being taxed.
It would go some distance towards addressing the new world of work which will see many skills and jobs become obsolete. A system of basic income - something long advocated by Social Justice Ireland - would go a considerable distance towards ensuring that everyone has enough money to live life with dignity. It would place an income floor underneath every individual, which can be relied upon regardless of changing circumstances, while also structuring Ireland's welfare system in a way that better meets the needs of the modern economy, increasing flexibility for individuals of working age and reducing inequality in society. It would also be a great enabler, giving people greater control over their lives and how they wish to divide their time between work, education, caring, volunteering, personal development and leisure. Every person in society should have the right to contribute to that society. Part of this means that worthwhile employment should be a genuine option for everyone who seeks it. However, worthwhile employment will not always be available, so we need a system that puts an income floor underneath everybody in society now and into the future.
We will face future shocks; that is why we need a new social contract that can secure income, work and participation for all in a time of great need.
A Universal Basic Income should be a key component of this contract.
Dr Sean Healy is director of Social Justice Ireland