Why you should care
Because, lo, the mighty do fall.
Despite his penchant for dressing up as Michael Jackson or Hunter S. Thompson for class, Janek Sowa is absolutely not kidding when he says, as he does to anyone who’ll listen, that Poland will cease to exist. Odds-on favorite? By the year 2020.
“We have an economy that constantly produces good macroeconomic indicators,” the slight, bespectacled, 39-year-old professor and sociologist at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, says from his hotel room in Berlin, where he’s attending a conference. Sowa cites things like public debt, which, according to him, is “not very elevated”; gross domestic product growth, which has stayed at 5 to 6 percent per year since the mid-’90s, he says, and never dropped below 2 percent even after the 2008 financial crisis; and a steady wave of foreign investments. Nonetheless, Sowa says, the average Polish citizen saw “very limited benefits from this economic miracle.”
It has been an economic miracle hailed by all and sundry, despite the jeremiads launched into the discussion by Sowa as often as sanity will allow. His warnings are predicated on Poland’s wage share being very low — 37 percent as compared with 50 to 60 percent in many developed countries, according to Sowa— which has created a state of affairs that sees a quarter of Polish workers earning only minimum wage, with two-thirds sitting well below the average monthly salary. “We are not a middle-class-based society,” Sowa says, “and it doesn’t look like we are going in that direction at all.”
If this is not a social disaster, then what is?
The warnings are not falling on deaf ears, as Sowa is a lot more than a Chicken Little-esque street-corner crazy. “[He] is without a doubt one of the most brilliant researchers of the younger generation,” says Monika Powalisz, editor-in-chief of Smak magazine, adding that Sowa does not shy away from “confrontation and criticism of the ruling elite.”
The direction that Poland is going toward? A crippling brain drain, Sowa says, with one-third of a population, including two-thirds of university graduates, emigrating, leaving an aging society where the vast majority work in “precarious job positions,” earning barely enough to make ends meet, and pensions are 200 euros. “If this is not a social disaster, then what is?” Sowa asks rhetorically. The son of noted academic Kazimierz Sowa, he delivers these broadsides from the vantage point not of one of the unlucky who are leaving but of the “lucky” who can stay. And watch the masses leave.
“Look at me,” Sowa says. He cites his publications: four books and more than 100 articles. He cites his full-time university position. “And I make … 800 euros net,” he says. “I once told that to a German colleague and he thought I got the English numbers wrong and meant 1,800, not 800.”
A figure soundly mocked by Polish politician Elżbieta Bieńkowska when she said, “Only a thief or an idiot is working for 6,000 PLN [Polish zloty].” Understandable from her vantage point. Poland’s recently departed President Bronisław Komorowski reportedly makes 20,138 PLN a month, while former Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz makes 20,000. And Bieńkowska herself had been secretly recorded, in the widely reported afera taśmowa (tape scandal), deriding people who make less than 6,000 PLN a month while dining on halibut and shrimp in coconut milk at the very tony Sowa i Przyjaciele restaurant.
However, when serious political personalities like the European Council President Donald Tusk, who was prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014, say, as he recently did, that the “Polish situation is very stable” and that “Poland is an example of an obvious success in Europe,” it’s understandable that no such thing as a unified opinion is forming about Sowa’s claims that the sky is falling. But this is why we have numbers, and the numbers are telling.
“We are a lower-class society,” Sowa says. He claims that Poles work more hours per year than people in most European Union countries and that labor productivity is at two-thirds of the EU average but wages are only at one-third, “which means we are twice as exploited as Western workers. It’s an investors’ paradise and workers’ hell.” The consequences of which are pretty telling: Labor flees. In 2004, when Poland joined the EU, between 2.5 million and 3 million Poles emigrated to Western countries, first to Ireland and the U.K. (current estimates indicate there are 300,000 Poles in Dublin and half a million in London). Young, well educated and entrepreneurial, they often choose to do work that pays well below what they’re qualified to earn rather than staying in Poland.
Andrew A. Michta, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and longtime Eastern Europe analyst, says The Economist’s Edward Lucas “is not lying when he talks about the Polish economical miracle.” But on the street and among those voting with their feet (i.e., people under the age of 40), the perspective is much more global, and their expectations of Poland are that it should be much more European in terms of what the state does. “Younger people are immune to this carnival of promises we saw in the last election and in the face of sometimes abuses of state power, a soft rental market, [low wages] and a glass ceiling to real advancement,” Michta says. “So, no matter what the wider economic indicators are, people are leaving.”
Which raises the question: If things are so dire for the well-educated professional class, how and why is Sowa himself staying? “I can only live in a relative material safety because my parents were able to give me a small flat when I was 20-something,” Sowa says with a sigh. “It’s only because of it that I’m still in Poland and I have not emigrated. If I had had to buy this small apartment with credit, it would have meant paying almost half of my salary for 30 years. Why would I do that?”