The simplest measure of privilege is a quick calculation regarding the number of impediments or barriers one may encounter in accomplishing an objective. There are two core types of impediments: personal, which include location and physical ability, and systemic, which include access to educational opportunities and the existence of regulations that would obstruct this progress. A concrete example is labour mobility – the factors preventing one from being employed in a certain region or industry can be sorted into personal and systemic factors. The need for legal residence, an obligation to pay a minimum wage and discrimination based on age or race are all concrete examples of factors that can impede an individual’s ability to find employment.
Many of these factors – the right to unionise, the creation of a minimum wage, workplace safety standards – were developed to protect workers and their rights. As policies have been implemented and technology has advanced, markets have adjusted towards meeting these once-questioned standards. The prevailing theory surrounding globalization was that, over time, global markets would adjust to the migration of labour so that workers within the same industries across the globe would be paid the same wages. Countless examples across all sectors show that this has not proven to be the case.
But what is the impact of labour mobility in domestic economies? Within the EU, foreign workers (non-nationals) make up over 14% of the workforce with over 1.6M individuals, with an additional 1M EU28 citizens moving to another Eu28 state in search of employment. Of these workers, 56% were younger than the average age of nationals in the nation they were moving to, and 44% possessed formal post-secondary education. In the United States, over 3% of individuals have relocated to another state for work (constituting almost 10M people). If labour mobility serves as an indicator of the markets ability to adjust structurally to meet demand, therein raising overall productivity by better allocating resources, the two examples above stand as pillars. Or so goes the thought.
These is attributable to 2 key reasons: unification of occupational regulations and licensing, lowering the barriers to mobility between nations or states, and an instilled cultural norm of economic migrancy. While reduced wage flexibility plays a role, so does age – 54% of young people who had previously moved away from home were likely to move again for employment within the next 5 years.
One factor looms overhead: the role of unskilled immigrants in shaping the labour market within a developed economy. In this, the examples of the EU and the United States can serve as case studies: 13.3% of the population of the United States are legally qualified as “foreign-born”, and over 1.4M immigrants and asylum seekers entered the EU annually – within these sub-populations, the majority have been found to be unskilled labourers, with the barriers to entry for licensing often proving insurmountable for impoverished foreign agents.
An example: the United States faces a shortage of primary care physicians, with the problem expected to worsen as the population ages. Thousands of foreign-born doctors currently reside in the United States who do not practice medicine, having obtained their medical license and education abroad. In order to practice medicine with a license in the United States, a doctor must pass board exams, an English language test and complete a residency program. Here the systemic impediments emerge – among doctors who attending medical school in the United States, over 95% are accepted into residency programs at American hospitals. For doctors who have trained abroad, these acceptance rates drop to below 40% of applicants.
Justifications abound for this case – medical schools are taxpayer subsidized, the differentiation between international standards, familiarity with the American medical industry. But none of these factors change the clear fact that there are too few primary care physicians in the United States to take care of the ageing population. Supply clearly outweighs the demand, which exists in the form of trained doctors who find the impediments to practicing medicine in the United States pushing over 60% of individuals into various states of underemployment.
Facilitating the mobility of labour and lowering the barriers to entry for skilled workers is a crucial policy example where reducing regulatory hurdles and tackling systemic bias go hand-in-hand; a perfect pairing for wherever you may fit on the political spectrum. Systems should be put in place to ensure that the growing skills gaps is met in coming years – creating systems that better utilize skilled labour is both an easy and impactful fix. Maybe then we can recognize that giving someone a good job is not really a privilege at all.