The Future of Work: The Trouble With Shrinking Governments Worldwide

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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Police stand guard during a rally against government public-sector spending cuts on May 30, 2015, in London. (Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock)

Police stand guard during a rally against government public-sector spending cuts on May 30, 2015, in London. (Photo: 1000 Words/Shutterstock)

We have followed closely the dramatic changes in work in the private sector due to automation, outsourcing, and offshoring of production. But much less attention has been devoted to similar transformations in public-sector work and their consequences. The availability and quality of employment in the public sector is directly linked to the capacity of governments to provide good public services, regulate markets, and promote social well-being, especially for disadvantaged people. So a debate about the future of work and workers must urgently consider how such changes affect not only government employers and employees, but also the citizens they are supposed to serve.

Roberto Pires is a researcher at the Institute for Applied Economic Research in Brasília, Brazil.

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Employment in the public sector varies widely by country. In Singapore, only six percent of workers are employed by government, but 88 percent of employed Emiratis work at some level of government or for government-controlled companies. In between come Latin American countries like Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, with approximately 10 percent; the United States and Germany with approximately 15 percent; France with 25 percent; Norway and Denmark with 30 percent to 35 percent; and China above 50 percent, according to an International Labor Organization database for recent years.

But many nations have targeted bureaucracies, seeking to increase their efficiency in the use of taxpayer money. They have made government jobs less secure and cut rights and benefits traditionally associated with government employment. In many ways, these reforms mirror transformations in the private sector.

While these reforms have been extensively analyzed by public administration scholars, sociologists, and political scientists, we still know little about the broader social implications. For example, in the U.S., working for the government has long provided the financial security needed for a steady advance up the economic ladder for women, Latinos, and African Americans. It is estimated that roughly one in five black adults works for the government. The decreasing stability and quality of public-sector employment is therefore likely to disproportionately affect black communities, and especially black women, as demonstrated by Jennifer Laird in a paper at the 2015 annual meeting of the Population Association of America.

Another anxiety relates to the state’s autonomy and capacity to regulate the market economy and promote development. Since the seminal works of Max Weber on bureaucracy and a large body of scholarly production on state formation, stable jobs and long-term rewarding career paths in the public sector have been regarded as essential for limiting the power of interest groups. However, mirroring ongoing transformations in the private sector, governments have increasingly resorted to subcontracting and outsourcing. This is a salient trend in developing countries. For example, in Brazil, not only the levels of public employment (as proportion of the total workforce and population) have kept steady at low levels since the mid-1990s, but also stable jobs have been substituted for temporary contracts or other informal arrangements. At the local government level, precarious employment arrangements have increased 30 percent since 1992, affecting mostly school teachers, health-care agents, and the police, as indicated by a report from the Institute for Applied Economic Research. This shift accounts for discontinuous and lower quality service, which again hurts more severely the poor and other disadvantaged social groups.

It is about time to face these issues and develop ideas to reconcile the desire to reduce the cost of government with the increasing need for sophisticated programs to deal with social inequalities and mitigate the perverse effects of the market economy.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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