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As Davos debated AI’s threat to jobs, where were the world leaders?

2019 World Economic Forum in Davos.
Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
You would think they would be here by now.
  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Editor of Quartz at Work

DavosPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s a pity there were fewer influential world leaders than in previous years at Davos this week at the World Economic Forum, and not only because so many of the risks that are top of mind right now for delegates are political in nature.

The official theme of this year’s forum, “Globalization 4.0,” focused on the fourth industrial revolution and how the world will respond to mass job losses triggered by automation and artificial intelligence. Surely the private sector must share in the burden, but the shortage of participation by governments in the debate here felt inexcusable given the stakes.

Livelihoods are on the line, and the ripple effects on families and communities won’t be slowed by empty talk about the need to reskill the labor force. The Davos set learned this the last time around, when an inadequate response to the labor-market effects of global trade paved the way for the populist wave that prompted much soul-searching among Davos regulars.

Of course, expecting the world’s problems to be solved in a few days at a ski resort is asking a lot. But for all of the stick that Davos gets, there are few times and places when so many executives and policymakers are crammed in the same conference center. If nothing else, the consensus that emerges from the speeches, meetings, and schmoozing this week can nudge things in a certain direction once everyone goes home and gets back to work.

Every country will choose its own level of involvement in smoothing out the effects of the disruption, but arguably none of them is close to prepared. Even governments that manage to provide quality services to the young (with schooling, for example) or to the old (public pensions) tend to have much less experience helping people manage major life transitions during the stages in between.

On the positive side, the absences of Modi, Macron, Trudeau, and Trump meant that Davos wasn’t the circus it was last year. Security lines moved quickly and the promenade that runs through town was relatively clear of traffic. But the economic security of millions of people remains at risk, and the road ahead won’t be so easily navigated.

This story also appeared in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief. Sign up here for the newsletter, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.

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