Argentina, Latin American Region · 11 June, 2019

The future of work, public trust and democratic legitimacy: a view from Latin America

Eduardo Lépore, Doctor in Sociology, National Director of Social Security Regimes at the Ministry of Health and Social Development of Argentina and Director of the Poverty, Inclusion and Social Policy Programme of the Pontificate Catholic University of Argentina.

Reflection on the future of work is an issue that has been gaining  prominence in the last three decades both in academic debate and in discussions in government and civil society. In a historical period marked, according to Castel, by an increase in social insecurity, the initial proposals go back to the problem of the “end of work” that some intellectuals, especially Europeans such as Beck, Gorz, Habermas and Dahrendorf began to formulate in the nineties from positions critical of economic globalisation. Today there is broad agreement that demographic change, productive transformations and the acceleration of technological progress are three wide-ranging factors that are shaping the future of work in the world in a disparate and combined way. Their consequences are revealed particularly in the evolution and sectoral composition of employment, in the supply of and demand for skills, and in the configuration of labour relations.


The relevance given to the issue lies fundamentally in the centrality that work, especially full-time salaried work of indefinite duration, with legal protection and good remuneration, has had until now as a privileged source of social integration and evaluative cohesion of modern democratic societies. It is for this reason that public confidence in the ability of jobs markets to generate the necessary opportunities for inclusion is a subjective condition that we can surmise will significantly affect the evolution of democratic legitimacy and its design of a meritocratic society.

When we translate these concerns into the Latin American context, we quickly realise that such challenges are inextricably combined with the consequences of long-standing development debt. Indeed, the effects of demographic, productive and technological change must be faced, unlike in developed countries, in conditions of incomplete modernisation. For this reason, it cannot be overemphisised that the persistence of dualism in the conformation of the economic structure and its weakness in supporting a demand for work with the capacity to absorb the available labour force into its most dynamic and productive segments remains a feature that defines the way the region’s jobs markets operate. Thus, the approach to the future of work in our case also involves a statement about the future of occupational marginality in its various forms.

Stylistically, among the most relevant trends occurring in the economic structure of Latin American countries, the progressive growth of the tertiary sector, as well as the sustained reduction of the traditionally important primary industry, stand out. There is also an increasing concentration of production in the strata with the highest economic productivity, while jobs tend to be concentrated in those with the lowest productivity. However, the studies conducted so far do not seem to indicate any polarisation of qualifications, at least in the way this is observed in developed countries. And although automation in industrial and service activities is a risk to the continuity of many occupations, and especially the least qualified, neither is it occurring as fast as in developed countries. On the other hand, there is an increase in self-employment, as opposed to salaried work, based on an already high share of non-salaried jobs in the occupational structure. In this same vein, the recent, though accelerated, introduction of the platform economy, fundamentally in the large cities of the region, is probably the most outstanding occurrence expressing the commented trends.

Furthermore, the analysis of the behaviour of the job market’s key indicators shows that after the period of expansion of employment evidenced in the 2000s, the improvements subsequently stabilised. The unemployment rate reported by the ILO in 2018 was 8.4%, which in absolute terms, meant a population of around 25 million unemployed. Likewise, and despite the progress achieved in these years, informal employment remains unchanged at around half of the employed population, accounting for some 53% in 2016, according to a recent ILO study (2018). Thus some 140 million people work in informal jobs in the region. In general terms, it is women, the young and less educated workers who are most exposed to unemployment and informal occupation, and to the so-called traps of discouragement and inactivity.

Faced with this situation, there are strong arguments to affirm that the aspiration for a society based on work with social protection continues to be the most robust project for achieving more stable, secure and integrated democratic societies.

A first caveat in this regard is that the question of the future of work cannot be detached from the debate about the paths of economic development in the context of ongoing globalisation and our states’ responsibility for promoting it. Our countries’ experience provides irrefutable evidence that economic growth is not in itself a sufficient condition for the creation of quality jobs, nor for the formalisation of jobs markets; although it is undoubtedly a necessary condition for both effects. Therefore, the style of economic and social development that countries adopt, understanding this to be the type of structure of institutions, policies and interests that strategically guide this process, will be a more accurate predictor of how demographic, productive and technological changes will affect each national context.

In the more specific area of policies aimed at facing the challenges of the future of work in the region, the exploration of new alternatives that seek sustainable improvements in the productivity of the less dynamic economic sectors and a greater labour inclusion of groups with greater difficulties in achieving formal employment are priority political directions. Among the programming areas in which action is necessary, the following should be highlighted:

  • Develop the productivity of micro and small companies through production, technological and credit policies.The transition to the formalisation of these sectors, in which a large part of informal employment is concentrated, depends on a multiplicity of measures that include those of registry simplification and reduction of non-wage labour costs. However, for this transition to be sustainable, the capacities of these companies must be improved through the implementation of comprehensive policies aimed at increasing their productivity levels.
  • Prepare young people for the jobs of the future in changing environments with a high use of technologies.In recent decades, various policies have been implemented to deal with young people’s difficulty finding quality jobs. Vocational training programmes aimed at developing the employability of young people with less human capital has been the course followed. These designs are generally characterised as offering a combination of active employment policy services, and particularly job training, completion of formal studies, coordination with public employment services, job counselling and intermediation, work practices in real work environments and support to entrepreneurship.
  • Design labour institutions that encourage the use of opportunities offered by technological change. Although no substantial changes have been observed in the demand for skills in the countries of the region, the truth is that the increasing application of digital technologies to production processes will require more qualified workers. Information and communication technologies are an opportunity to improve productivity, as well as to offer new employment opportunities, especially for the very young.
  • Review social security systems to broaden their scope and coverage.Although considerable progress has been made in the implementation of non-contributory social pensions, much remains to be done in terms of including groups difficult to cover, such as micro companies, independent, rural and domestic service workers. Also in order to achieve greater integration between the contributory and non-contributory components of social security systems that facilitate the transition to formality.
  • Enhance policy frameworks for activation. In the last two decades, the implementation of non-contributory social protection programmes was one of the most successful innovations in the region’s social policies. The stagnation of the poverty reduction process, in the context of a less favourable macroeconomic situation with greater tax restrictions, leads to considering the advisability of implementing job activation measures that complement income transfers. The development of well-designed job training and orientation programmes through strengthened employment services is a plausible alternative to favour the activation and formalisation of employment.
  • Promote new forms of social dialogue.There is an obvious need to review the processes of social dialogue and to incorporate the representatives of the sectors of the social economy, usually not included in the tripartite schemes. The institutionalisation of the areas of social dialogue is also a relevant approach, as well as their constitution at local levels, given the region’s importance in coordinating social and employment services.


The implementation of these guidelines will depend largely on the governments’ ability to set the priority of quality employment in public policies, by agreement with the social and economic agents. The achievement of this task will, in turn, determine the more or less certain possibility of forming inclusive jobs markets that contribute to strengthening confidence in democratic institutions. Because as the Latinobarómetro reports have been demonstrating for several years, it is the social dimension of citizens that TH Marshall suggested, in the opinion of Latin Americans, is ostensibly less assured by the democracy of our countries. And this is the second caveat to consider.

Pais: Argentina, Latin American Region
ODS: Decent work and economic growth, Peace, justice and strong institutions
Área de Políticas: Democratic governance policies
Tipo: Article

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