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How to Be an Optimist in a Populist Central Europe

The thriving startup and entrepreneurial culture gives one hope about the future of the local labor market. 

by Martin Ehl 13 April 2017

As hard as it is to believe, news coming from Central Europe isn’t all bad.


I recently attended the Growing East! Congress in Vienna, a gathering of businessmen and students targeting multinational companies based in Austria, and Vienna in particular, and that operate in the region. This year’s event was a break with the past, when Austrian and international managers present at the event wanted explanations about the recent wave of nationalism and populism sweeping countries such as Poland or Hungary. This time around, the organizers from the Neusicht think tank and the Vienna University of Economics and Business decided to explore the other side of the coin, and focus on success stories.


Polish and Slovak startups presented their work alongside giants like Henkel or Uniqua. And even if the approach of small and multinational companies is totally different, both sides were giving off an interesting message about the energy and potential of the region. “You can see how entrepreneurial these young people are, and how we could learn from them,“ said Arnold Schuh, a professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and a co-organizer of the event.


Schuh travels the region extensively, and is knowledgeable about new as well as well-established companies in Central and Eastern Europe, and as such has been comparing the Austrian and the “Eastern” business approach. And he values more highly the Eastern entrepreneurs’ willingness to take risks than the solidity, stability, and risk-aversion of Austrian businessmen.


With that interesting message in my head, I boarded a train back to Prague, and spent my trip reading a newly published book written by American journalist Thomas Friedman, Thank You for Being Late. This book has the subtitle “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” and looks at the opportunities offered by globalization and the superfast development of modern technologies. Amid my attempts to grasp all the news about the nationalization of economies (an endeavor not restricted to Central Europe), about the growth of populist political forces, about the closing of borders and anti-immigrant feelings, and about Central Europe turning into the pariah of further European cooperation, Friedman’s book came to me as a message from another planet. In addition to describing all the above-mentioned trends – and not only from an American perspective, which is distinct from the gloomy European one – he is also exploring latent potential and opportunities, instead of just criticizing the status quo.


In the chapter describing different business and economic realities, and possible future trends, he writes about the changing labor environment, where jobs for life after finishing school are gone, but there is a need for constant life-long education to have a chance to get any job. He also speaks about future jobs, which will not be automated, and thus would require more social skills, plus the ability and will for lifelong learning.


I have immediately connected these ideas to my previous experience at Grow East! where a young Polish startup guy talked about how he sells his IT solution globally (and how he recently acquired a Brazilian client), and where a Slovak introduced the concept of online micromarketing, which is basically creating an online community of small entrepreneurs. After its success in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, his company has now entered the Austrian market.


Yes, these individuals are the future of Central Europe – not the huge automotive factories that now dominate local economies, with cheap labor as their main selling point. Here the demand for unqualified, manual work is plentiful – but depends on the cyclical industry of car assembly – and there is enough new infrastructure only because of EU funds. However, there are quite a lot of people in our countries with a more flexible outlook on life and the economy, partly thanks to the rigid labor market that makes it harder to get a regular full-time contract with an unspecified end date (Poland knows this best). Young people are, to a great extent, forced to adjust to a new labor and business reality. And many of them are doing that well.


Even the Polish and Hungarian nationalists have realized that creativity and entrepreneurship should be somehow supported, as a way to boost Central European economies and help them catch up with their Western counterparts such as Austria.


Well, I might be riding a wave of optimism after reading an interesting book and having met fascinating people. I know the majority of post-communist societies welcome the stability and security presented by politicians under the guise of a stronger role for the state and huge investments in cheap labor manufacturing.


But when local politics offers little hope, we should turn to local business for inspiration.  

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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