In the early years of this 21st century, the world is faced with an immense social question, linked to three major transformations:

– The first is economic in nature: it stems from the effects of a globalised economy, putting countries in competition with each other, leading to the offshoring and relocation of companies, regional divisions, increased inequality, mobility and migration.

– The second is ecological in nature: the fight against global warming imposes drastic changes in lifestyles, condemning the most traditional ones to give way to new ones yet to be invented, and these changes have a greater impact on the least privileged populations.

– The third is technological: the digital revolution raises questions about the future of work and the nature of jobs in a digital society.

These three major transformations are often addressed independently and unilaterally, whereas they are concomitant and interact with each other. The reality of these transformations is not just economic or ecological or technological: it is of a social nature and has new, specific characteristics.

– The first aspect of the new social question is the focus of numerous works describing the development of new social and regional stratifications, the deepening of inequalities, the hollowing out of societies hitherto centred around the middle class with a shift to new, increasingly heterogeneous social classes. As a consequence, statistical instruments, which are constructed on a national basis and homogenise and group populations into categories, are no longer relevant to describe a heterogeneous, disparate social reality, crossed by divergent trends.

– The new social question does not only call into question social stratifications, it also concerns lifestyles. Fighting climate change will require profound changes in the way we eat, consume, live, and even the way we view family life. The demands of the fight against global warming are unravelling the fragile balances that people had managed to build in response to economic transformations. A change in lifestyles will ineluctably lead to a redefinition of identities.

– The third aspect of the new social question is psychological. The transformations under way are snowballing, generating a flurry of comments and blurring our vision of the future: we are caught between the need to adapt, which sounds like a condemnation of our past ways, and a sense of overwhelming uncertainty. The future can no longer be built upon the past and seen as progress. How can you imagine a future when you no longer know what can be done or what you should be?

No society on the planet is left unspared by these transformations, although their social consequences admittedly differ from one place to another. The characteristics described above probably concern developed societies more than emerging countries, but there is no country in which they do not translate into social reality.

These transformations can only be successful if they meet the social challenge they pose. This implies going beyond the somewhat Darwinian logic of adaptation which, more often than not, is used to sum up the new social question (sink or swim). It is precisely achieving successful transformation that defines the social responsibility of intellectuals, public authorities and economic and financial players in the early years of this 21st century.

This responsibility involves answering three questions.

First, a philosophical question, pertaining to the vision of society that must guide the orchestration of the transformations under way. We cannot purport to have no definitions of the notions underpinning a successful social life: identity, equality, justice, solidarity, fraternity, dignity, living a good life…

The political question is whether there is a solution to the new social question outside the national framework that globalisation, with its rationale of border suppression and free competition, tends to cast aside. Does the imperative to be “inclusive”, which is so much in vogue, have any meaning outside the context of a national community and the solidarity it allows?

Economic and financial players are the agents of the three transformations, the nexus where they are articulated and have concrete effects. The question they need to address is how to introduce changes in the fairest way, one that will mitigate their most deleterious effects while satisfying the value criteria of a good society.