Post-Soviet Estonia has been run by the young. That is largely why it is now considered the most competitive economy in the European Union, according to Andrus Ansip

When we are choosing among candidates for various posts, people often try to dissuade us on the grounds of the candidate’s youth: “He may be best for the job, but he is too young to have enough experience,” or “We cannot afford the risk of hiring such a young employee, her colleagues will not take her seriously.” Such prejudice creates a vicious circle for young people and makes them feel rejected. Their feeling of disengagement is, in turn, reflected in low participation rates in civic society, for example in the low young voter turnout that we have seen in elections from Canada to Britain.

There is no one quick fix to the challenge of involving young people in politics or increasing their interest in the broader issues facing the society. We all have to recognize that we have the ability to shape society so that it is able to meet future challenges.

It may seem that in our rapidly-changing world, the long traditions of government institutions provide much-needed stability. The very inertia of government bureaucracies is often considered a bulwark against sudden external change. Yet if we are too reliant on institutions that have served us in the past, we may miss out on new, innovative solutions and, by so doing, discourage our youth from addressing societal problems.

Starting from scratch

During the first years after Estonia restored its independence in 1991, we faced a difficult task. We had to rebuild the government institutions that the Soviets had destroyed during their 50-year occupation, more or less from scratch. At the same time, extensive reforms had to be implemented to transform the planned economy into a modern market economy. Fifteen years later, I am glad to say that we have fulfilled both tasks. There are many reasons why Estonia has been able to achieve so much so fast. I think one of the most important is the large proportion of young people among decision-makers.

At the beginning of the 1990s, eastern Europe faced a situation in which many important posts had to be filled by people who had not been influenced by Soviet ideology and ways of thinking. Young people were, therefore, at an advantage. Thus, it was not surprising that people still in their twenties or thirties worked as top officials, ministers and managers of large corporations. Those of us who had grown up in a hated totalitarian system characterized by chronic shortages could see just how far our country had slipped from its previous prosperity. This spurred our determination to regain our position as a strong, European economy. The combination of this youthful ambition, on the one hand, and the opportunities and positions that had suddenly opened up, on the other, resulted in a whirlwind of reform and action.

Economic growth has remained strong in Estonia (at the time of writing, we are enjoying an annualized growth rate approaching 10%, one of Europe’s highest), implying that our liberal economic policies were exactly the right call. Our income tax rate is a relatively low and flat 23%. It matches our corporate tax rate, providing uniformity and eliminating incentives to change corporate structure simply to avoid tax. We privatized as many state-owned enterprises as we could in such sectors as telecommunications, transport, agriculture, air travel and manufacturing. We decided to embrace free trade, eschewing subsidies and tariffs alike. Rather than restricting foreign ownership, as some developing economies do, we went out of our way to encourage foreign investment.

These were bold choices and they were made by those “inexperienced” young people. Our society entrusted its youth with greater responsibility than ever before. As a result, our society was rewarded with rapid development. Willem Buiter, former chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has described our economy as the “most competitive in the entire European Union”.

Bureaucratic drag

Bureaucracies have a bad habit of reproducing themselves and attempting to justify their existence at all costs. This is very evident in those countries where public service is seen as a cushy number. The original rationale for the favourable work conditions provided to government officials – security of tenure and a reasonably generous pension – was to ensure a stable cadre of officials with a growing reservoir of experience. However, in these rapidly-changing times, we have to question whether this system is still appropriate.
The demands on our public services increasingly resemble those on business. In countries characterized by a dynamic labour market, people often move from the private sector into public service and vice versa. This helps both sides better understand each other. The cooperation of government and business is crucial for successful development. Once again, we should acknowledge that young people’s greater openness to new ways of thinking and acting ensures progress.

Rapid development is no longer a matter of choice. It is the only possible path. In Estonia, we do not ask if but, rather, when we will be among the leaders in the European Union in living standards. Whether it will take 15, 20 or 25 years largely depends on our ability to maintain our competitive advantage and to grow. To be successful does not mean merely keeping up with the other countries. It is possible to reduce the gap only by growing faster than the countries around us. To achieve this, we must be open and adopt the newest technologies and management strategies.

e-Government

Information technology allows us to leapfrog into 21st-century life. We are successfully replacing paper-based transactions with internet-based ones, because Estonians trust the providers of these services, in both the public and private sectors. More than 90% of bank transfers in Estonia are made via internet banks. Almost 80% of taxpayers submit their annual returns over the internet, an exercise that takes a matter of minutes. (The processing takes all of five days.) Even in voting, the most traditional of activities, Estonia is the only country in the world where local and national governments can be elected over the internet using a digital signature as well as by the old-fashioned casting of ballots.

Unlike many other countries, 15 years ago Estonia had a chance to use state-of-the-art technology. Now most of our national databases are electronic and shared across different government departments, so that an official in one department has access to data entered in another. Different e-government applications such as the social welfare system, paperless document handling and our cabinet infosystem – which allows ministers to participate in meetings without being physically present – are used at both central and local government level.

This creates completely-new opportunities for exercising official authority – efficient solutions that had seemed impossible for years. For example, the police can check your driving licence, medical certificate, vehicle registration and insurance on the road just by checking your licence plate – so you don’t need to worry too much if you left your documents at home. The many opportunities and the use of modern technology in traditionally-conservative areas such as electronic voting, as well as the filing of tax and customs returns online, are factors that engage young people and motivate them to contribute to the key issues in society and politics.

The period since the restoration of the independence of the Republic of Estonia has been short and we have no political veterans with decades of experience. However, politicians of just 30, who have been in politics for about 10 years, are no neophytes. They are experienced enough to ensure the continuity of ideas and values. At the same time, those holding key positions have not forgotten the chance they got at a turning point in history or the trust placed in them by society regardless of their youth. Decision-makers in Estonia are not preoccupied with people’s age – what is important is what they can and want to accomplish.

Those who have enjoyed the trust of others, in their turn, pass on that trust. Societies whose youth had a chance to be trusted with their country’s destiny are lucky. Those who can keep it and develop it are wise.

CV Andrus Ansip

Andrus Ansip is prime minister of Estonia and leader of Estonia’s Reform Party. He was economy minister in the previous coalition government.