More and more students and graduates are entering the ‘real world’ with only a rudimentary understanding of the political and economic systems within which they are expected to, and must, operate.
Consider the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). In its aftermath, many members of the public have become unsettled as they continue to be adversely affected by something they do not completely understand.
Ignorance begets mistrust, suspicion and hostility, or, conversely, disinterest and disengagement. According to research by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – a valuable multilateral organisation which provides economic and social policy analysis and advice – as few as 56 per cent of people on average say they trust their public institutions. In some countries, this rate drops below 30 per cent.
As a consequence, governments and organisations like the OECD can seem like faceless institutions or rich men’s clubs. This can negatively impact upon their work and hamper the consideration of research and proposed reforms.
In 2009, the OECD’s financial education research body published a report into the contribution of financial illiteracy to the deepening and worsening of the effects of the GFC. The most disturbing finding of this report was that ‘the vast majority of the population is ill-equipped to participate in the global economy because they lack basic financial skills’. A person’s financial literacy will significantly affect their access to and planning for higher education, home ownership, secure retirement, savings and investments, and their vulnerability to scams and imprudent financial decisions.
Yet the crisis and its aftermath have also been identified as a unique opportunity, a ‘teachable moment’, with households now more willing to learn about financial matters. Thus, as the public increasingly demonstrates a serious interest in understanding economic and financial issues, governments and organisations such as the OECD should be encouraged to actively support and educate their willing publics.
If such a rare opportunity for reform and education is squandered, we may live to regret it – and our children certainly will.
Better economic education and better communication on economic matters can help to eliminate barriers of ignorance and resistance, opening up public discourse and allowing for greater focus on the content of economic reforms, as opposed to trivialities or political point-scoring.
Simply producing information is no longer enough. The public needs to be reached out to, connected with and included. If the OECD expects its research and recommendations to be understood and implemented, it needs to take more responsibility for this by advocating for greater investment in economic literacy as well as better communication with the public. If member governments wish to see important economic reforms debated, considered and accepted in an informed manner, they need to help facilitate this process.
A greater prioritisation of economic education would be the first step. A concerted effort to produce and communicate more digestible information for the public could be a second.
The latter could be achieved by the OECD and member governments through the use of internet communications technologies, including social media, to promote better economic education and public engagement in economic issues.
Social media can provide a unique alternate avenue for information. It piques audiences' interest in economic and political matters and offers supplementary information, particularly for younger members of the general public.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that social media and the internet do not provide a panacea. Rather, they assist and support that which is pre-established and offer an avenue for communicating with younger generations in particular. Communicated information and messages must still be carefully composed with genuine consideration for the intended audience if positive results are to be obtained – a consideration that is often lacking in much of what is produced today.
To create a depth of economic literacy and understanding is to develop a citizenry capable of making informed decisions and forming educated opinions about economic subject matter.
To restore confidence and trust, and increase public participation and debate, it is vital that the OECD and member governments do more to actively promote economic education and engagement for all.