The region and its inhabitants face high levels of inequality, inefficient investment in education and low labor productivity.
We live in a world in accelerated transformation, in which changes occur rapidly at the technological, migratory and demographic levels.
Despite the uncertainty and challenges that come with it, many of these changes are positive, such as greater life expectancy or the emergence of new professional opportunities for people who are now outside the formal economy in areas such as the gig economy or collaborative economy.
However, Latin America and the Caribbean face a complicated scenario that could prevent the region from taking advantage of the opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution: a scenario in which high levels of inequality are combined with inefficient investment in education and low labor productivity.
In the midst of this complex actuality several questions arise:
1. Are our young people prepared to form and be able to navigate productive and happy lives in a world in accelerated transformation?
2. What are the key skills to develop for the 21st-century individual?
3. Could these transformations help us break the burden of inequality and create more prosperous societies?
The reality is that the individual of the 21st century develops in an extremely dynamic environment in which he will live with technologies such as artificial intelligence that, although able to help solve some of the problems facing humanity today, will also generate practical and ethical challenges.
We know that, until now, the development of technical skills has been strongly related to good results in the labor market.
However, an IDB study shows how its importance has been falling over the past two decades, while returns on investment in cross-cutting or socio-emotional skills have been increasing.
But what are these skills, also called soft skills or, as I prefer to call them, automation-proof skills so important?
Soft skills such as perseverance, resilience, the ability to learn throughout life, creativity, critical thinking, flexibility, communication, and persuasion are indeed things companies are paying lots of attention to nowadays.
Their development – in addition to having an impact on our work success – also has effects on the different areas of well-being and personal and social life of all of us as individuals.
They constitute the equivalent to the human operating system: they form the mental architecture of the individual and are the best buffer to respond to the uncertainty posed by today’s world because they support both basic functions and the development of more sophisticated functions for work and for life in general.
An opportunity to reduce inequality
Latin America and the Caribbean have one of the largest skills gaps in the world and the talent formation systems of the region, including school, focus on titles behind which there are curricula that are not adapted to the new reality.
In addition, student performance is extremely poor compared to other regions, and school dropouts remains a major challenge. In Latin America, about 50% of students leave the system before completing secondary education.
Additionally, the wage gaps associated with early abandonment between a worker who did not finish high school and one who did is of 300% in countries such as Chile or Colombia.
This means that we not only live with structures that resemble the world we lived in last century, but that even within those old structures, Latin Americans are within the worst levels that may have been seen in the XX century.
Latin American countries have to continue investing in specific knowledge and skills and techniques, but they need to do much better and, above all, not exclusively maintaining an instruction model based on content that will no longer prepare young people to face the challenges of tomorrow, because tomorrow is happening today.
While memorization is less and less important because we have unlimited access and instantly to millions of content with a simple click, the mentality or mindset of students is increasingly relevant.
After 15 years of testing, a study by the consultant McKinsey on how to improve the student’s school results from PISA 2015 data shows that the students’ mindset can become twice as important as their socio-economic background to predict the academic performance of young people.
That is to say that, contrary to generalized beliefs, family origin does not have to define the future of the children on their own, provided that the school manages to work and strengthen that mindset or mental architecture of young people.
In fact, the lower-income quartile boys who participated in the study and who had a well-calibrated mentality obtained a better average academic performance than the boys with the highest-income quartile with a poorly calibrated mentality.
The question is, how can we expand these results to reach a wider population? The good news is that, as shown in a recent IDB publication, there are skills development programs that can prepare children and youth in the region to realize their full potential and, in some cases, can even be launched with limited human and financial resources.
The countries of the region should invest in digital literacy, global citizenship, and values programs, in music, sports and entrepreneurship training programs because through these programs children, youth and adults manage to develop the set of skills they need to live.
In addition, all of them can include the latest findings of behavioral sciences to incorporate intervention strategies that allow the demolition of psychological barriers that prevent individuals from developing their skills and reaching their goals through changes in their habits, attitudes, and behaviors.
For all these reasons, it is time for the region to transform its educational systems to generate a critical mass of young leaders, change agents and active individuals at any age, regardless of their socio-economic origin.
Despite the risks, there is a unique opportunity to achieve, in a short period of time, that many people – normal people by the standards of the last century – have the opportunity to become extraordinary people who can develop all their potential and contribute to creating a more prosperous world for future generations.
In the midst of this transition in which we find ourselves – the transition from a known world of degrees and diplomas to a new world focused on skills and lifelong learning – the key is that, instead of facing it with fear or suspicion, it must be addressed as a real opportunity.
The opportunity for Latin America and the Caribbean to finally reach the gap between high and low-income children, youth and adults to create a new space in which it is possible to combat one of the worst evils of the region: inequality.