Digitisation and automation are causing an intense transformation of our societies and economies. The progressive integration of new technologies in our economy amounts to a paradigm shift with a profound impact on the context and content of work. Almost all jobs already have or will have a digital component. In the years to come, this process of fundamental change will only accelerate.

This radical transformation instills fear in the minds of many Europeans about what’s in store for them in the future. Only 44% of Europeans believe they have sufficient skills to properly handle digital technologies. A significant part of our current work force is indeed not yet adequately equipped to cope with its consequences.

How should we deal with the fundamental impact of digitisation and automation on jobs? Let me first make clear how not to approach this. There is no room for complacency or ignorance. For some, the status quo is sufficient, as we are experiencing net job creation. They forget that the next recession or wave of automation will show that our labour market is not ready to deal with it.

Others propose unrealistic solutions such as a universal basic income. In combination with current welfare benefits, a universal basic income would put undue pressure on already heavily strained government budgets. Alternatively, combining the introduction of a universal basic income with immediate and drastic welfare reforms (labour market deregulation, reduction of benefits), would likely cause major social unrest and reinforce inequalities. And most importantly, a universal income does not provide a solution to the need to boost social mobility and to develop the right skills in the digital age.

Image: McKinsey & Company

The fundamental change we are faced with requires a creative yet credible solution that holds the promise of strengthening and renewing our social contract. The introduction of a universal right to learn is such a solution, providing everyone with the opportunity to develop skills throughout life. This right would make lifelong learning a cornerstone of our social contract, in combination with social security and healthcare.

Compulsory traditional education, the fruit of the 19th century industrial revolution, is no longer enough to deal with the challenges of our digital era. In the future, few young graduates will have the luxury of many of their parents in keeping the same job for life. Yet, current approaches to on-the-job training and continuous learning are insufficient and inadequate.

Insufficient, as they are essentially based on the goodwill of the private sector, resulting in a far too low investment rate. Inadequate, because it is generally geared towards the most qualified and the most vulnerable are largely excluded.

What would this universal right to learn look like? All adult citizens should receive an equal number of ‘learning tokens’ per year which can be traded for qualifying skills training. They should be granted time to train, for example two years, over their entire career. The training courses should be aimed at developing "technological" skills (such as programming or data analysis) as well as skills complementary to machines and robots (such as creativity, emotions, interaction with others, coping with failure, or entrepreneurial skills).

The Universal Right to Learn trading system should be partly financed by private enterprise, to ensure that training courses address market needs.

The emission-trading system could provide an example for a mechanism: each company would be allocated a certain quota of tokens corresponding to training hours (depending on the number of people employed). Employers may choose to offer such training themselves or purchase tokens from other organisations providing the courses. The mechanism would enable anyone, regardless of status, age, seniority or income level, to enjoy an equal right to continuous learning. Training courses could be offered by any service provider (educational institution, company or individual), face-to-face or online, on the condition of quality monitoring.

Every industrial revolution brings along a learning revolution. The private sector has a key role to play to make the learning revolution happen. The first engineering and business schools in Belgium were launched at the end of the nineteenth century by prominent business leaders, such as Ernest Solvay.

Learning is not just a labour market or economic growth issue. It is an integral part of human development. We learn from birth to death. At a collective level, learning is an essential link in our society. At a time when machines and algorithms are becoming "learners", human beings have to continue to learn more than ever. So how about a universal right to learn?

Read the World Economic Forum's new report, Renew Europe.