Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i In Focus i In focus 2005 i Young and unemployed - in search of a future i Youths falling at the hurdles of working life
Youths falling at the hurdles of working life

Youths falling at the hurdles of working life

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Cata Portin

There’s increased division in the labour market, and young people are the ones who are loosing out. Earlier there were alternatives for those who didn’t succeed in school or took a greater interest in practical work. Today those youths risk being left behind. There has been a change in the structures of the labour market, but many young people blame themselves.

”The demands for an education are greater today, and this is different from what we had in the 1990s. The entry ticket to working life is higher secondary education, and people who haven’t got their grades haven’t got a chance, whether they’ve got a Swedish or a foreign surname. They’re always at a disadvantage”, says Monica Harrysson and the central authority of the Swedish Labour Market Administration, AMS. 

It is important to secure final grades from higher secondary education. Not necessarily as a guarantee for knowledge, but as a kind of receipt for being a ”normal” and reliable person who takes an interest in things.

Earlier there were more alternatives for young people who weren’t interested in theoretical studies. Now they risk being left behind, as there has been a sharpening of the entry demands to working life. There are several reasons for this. During the economic downturn, 500 000 jobs disappeared in Sweden. Many of them were easy entry-level jobs, and they have never returned. 

Today even the simplest job as a shop assistant demands both language and computer skills. Noemi Katznelson, PhD, is head of research at the Center for Youth Research and Learning Lab in Copenhagen. Her main research concerns the situation of young people, and she too stresses the importance of education in an ever-changing and globalised world. 

“We see the same trends in other European countries. We’re asked to meet the global competition with a creative labour force, which demands a grading of the labour force”, she says.

One in four drop out 

This development worries Monica Harrysson. Partly because of the increase in the young long-term unemployed, partly because as many as one in four young people drop out of higher secondary education. She points out that there are many different categories of youths. There are many reasons for why they end up outside the labour market, and many stories of why they are unemployed and how they feel about it. That’s why it is important to focus on the individual, and try to find what he or she wants, and what their motivation is. 

“The only unifying factor is their age. Apart from that, they’re all different”, says Monica Harrysson.

In this context anyone between the ages of 16 and 24 are considered a youth. But some people get established even later. In Denmark people are considered youths until they’re 29. The same goes for the other Nordic countries, where some measures are targeted at the group of people between 25 and 29. 

Young people’s contribution to working life has changed dramatically since the beginning of the 1990s. There has been a sharp decline in the number of youths in full time employment. More people are studying now, and if they do work, it is often casual work. Young people who have neither work nor attend school are the greatest cause for concern. Several countries have mapped youths who no longer are in school and who are not found in employment office statistics. 

Last year the Swedish Ministry of Education presented its study ‘Youths on the outside’ (SOU 2003:92). It showed around 70 000 belonging to this category. After eliminating those who for example are taking a year out, 25 to 35 000 were still outside the system in the second year. They often live in big cities, many come from immigrant backgrounds and often they have not finished their elementary education. Many struggle with social and psychological problems. They are, without a doubt, youths in the danger zone. From experience we know that there is a great risk that these people will remain outsiders.

The freedom of choice

 Another deciding factor is the spirit of our time. In her thesis ‘Exposed youths, activation and education – doomed to individualisation’, Noemi Katznelson describes how certain young people increasingly feel they are living under pressure, created by a more individualised society. Young people know about the possibilities that come with freedom of choice, but can’t face living up to it. They miss the framework and the support needed to make those free choices. 

“In today’s world, young people must be their own stage directors. Very early on, they are expected to be able to express what it is they want, and to talk about their strengths and weaknesses. Many of those who try to help them become part of the problem. They become part of the demand structure, and youths hesitate to meet them, says Noemi Katznelson. 

She warns against an increasing split in society. Earlier these youths could find an alternative to education, now they risk ending up in a superfluous group. An obvious consequence of social change ends up marginalizing people.

 “These youths who can’t get a job see this as an individual problem, that they aren’t good enough. It is they who are carrying the burden”, she says. 

The matching problem 

Young people receive a mixed message these days. On the one hand there is the notion of a labour market which will need huge amounts of workers when the large post war generation of workers retire. So politicians and labour market authorities try to create incentives to get young people to study and work, hoping they’ll enter the labour market at an earlier stage than what is the case today. 

It’s a vision of youth enjoying a wide range of choice, while companies try to attract the desirable youths with new styles of leadership and brands promising self-development and social commitment. On the other hand, statistics show that young people are the first to go during an economic downturn – if they’ve managed to get a job in the first place. 

“We talk about demographics, about finding replacements for the 1940s generation. But there is a much larger matching problem than you think”, says Monica Harrysson. 

The casual work trap 

Youth unemployment in the Nordic countries varies between the countries, but is a clear political priority in all of them. It is harder for young people to get in, and they are the first to go in times of cutbacks. It is also harder to get tutorials or take a slower approach to entering the labour market, when many organisations have been through restructuring. Youth unemployment has developed differently in the Nordic countries, and this has influenced both how the problem is approached, and young people’s attitude to unemployment. It turns out that overall unemployment figures affect how unemployed youth regard their own situation. The lower the unemployment rate, the more alienated unemployed people feel. That is one of the conclusions in Ilse Julkunen’s PhD on the effects of youth unemployment in the five Nordic countries and Scotland.

She now works part time at STAKES, the National Research and Development Centre for Welfare and Health in Helsinki. When she’s not there, she works as clinic professor at the Finnish- Swedish Matilda Wrede clinic, one of nine regional centres of competence in Finland which act as a meeting place for research, education and practical training. One of her conclusions is that youth unemployment in Finland is different from the other Nordic countries. 

Unemployed Finnish youth battle more with poverty and social problems. Unemployment also tends to accumulate in certain families – in other words, the offspring of the unemployed risk themselves to remain outside the labour market. 

Different views

She also discovered how young people from different countries had different views on unemployment. It was for instance worse, and associated with greater shame, to be unemployed in Norway and in Iceland, than in the other Nordic countries. In Finland quite a lot of people have been unemployed at some stage, and the view there tends to be that unemployment is something which can affect many. 

She is worried that the problems in Finland are of a more European nature. More youths are in part-time employment or casual work. To be sure, many young people enjoy these casual jobs, but they can also be a trap holding the young back from qualifying for unemployment benefits.

 “There is an increasing risk for a more permanent alienation when you have lack of education and support. It is important to have a network of friends and family in order to get a job”, says Ilse Julkunen. 

“Families are playing an increasingly important role in solving these problems. This is a European trend which is becoming more and more visible here, and that is worrying”, says Ilse Julkunen. 

Active measures

Today Denmark emerges as an exception. Since 1996, the Danes have managed to turn around the negative trend for young people. Both Ilse Julkunen from Finland and Swedish Monica Harrysson bring up Denmark as the good example. At 7.2 per cent (Eurostat) youth unemployment, Denmark has the lowest figure in the whole of Europe. 

But Denmark hasn’t always been able to call itself “European champion” in low youth unemployment. Compared with the other Nordic countries, Denmark had relatively high unemployment among the young as early as the mid-70s. But since 1996, they’ve managed to buck the trend. 

Swedish youth unemployment rose from 9 to 13 per cent between 1992 and 1998. In Denmark it sank from 16 to 11 per cent in the same period. Sweden now has more than 17 per cent youth unemployment, compared to Denmark’s seven. 

How did this happen? There’s no simple answer. This is about individual, social and institutional circumstances, says Dr. Phil. Verica Stojanovic. She has compared the Swedish and Danish efforts, both in her treatise ‘To live life as an unemployed – the relations, economy, housing situation and appreciation of work among Swedish and Danish youth’, and in her PhD thesis ‘The faces of youth unemployment – identity and subjectivity in Swedish and Danish societies’. 

She has also taken part in the Ministry of Education study ‘Youths on the outside’, which forms the platform for a range of measures targeted at the young. She also works with the Swedish National board for Youth Affairs to evaluate several labour market projects, as well as the so-called ‘Navigator projects’. 

Both projects were initiated by the Government in order to stop young people falling outside the labour market. In these labour market projects, various organisations and associations co-operate with municipalities to find new methods to include the young. They target young people with foreign backgrounds, youths in sparsely populated areas and youths in socio-economically exposed environments. The Navigator projects aim to make municipalities and various authorities co-operate with associations and businesses to stop youths falling between two chairs. The Navigator projects also handle support for developing youth mentors. What can be learned from Denmark?

“Denmark has taught us that you cannot divide individuals to fit into either measures for the labour market or social measures. It doesn’t work, each individual is composed by several ‘jigsaw pieces’, and they must fit together in someone’s life. We shouldn’t shepherd young people back and forth”, says Verica Stojanovic. 

Sharpened demands 

She has many explanations to the Danish success. Denmark in the mid-90s activated both its educational and labour market policies to fit in with the needs of young people, and it was done even though youth unemployment was on its way down. Demands on young people were sharpened, and all youths under 25 were forced to attend either educational or activation projects, or loose social benefits. There was also increased emphasis on individual tutoring. To increase the level of education has been, and remains, a priority. 40 per cent of Danish youths go on to upper secondary education, and that is fewer than in many other countries. Denmark has introduced a socalled year ten, or a “post-year”, offered to youths who need a transfer year between elementary school and upper secondary education. This is a sort of folk high school for young people, run as boarding schools with state support. More than half of all Danish youths attend these schools.

Denmark also has a functioning apprentice system, as well as a close co-operation between schools and working life. One in five Danish youths attends vocational education. In addition to this, there are production schools and job training courses. 

“Sweden lacks that close relationship between school and working life”, says Verica Stojanovic. Denmark also offers a special youth tutoring programme, in which all youths get guidance from elementary school until they begin their higher education. If you drop out of the system, somebody will literally come knocking. The rule is to follow young people until the age of 19, and then those who want more guidance can get this from the employment office, explains Claus Strandmark, head of Greater Copenhagen Employment Office.

Since 2002 the Danes have also been working on a labour reform, called ‘More into work’ (FIA). Councils and employment offices work together to activate youths. Young people have the right to get work and are also obliged to be at the disposal of the labour market. They can get help writing a CV, they get guidance and help creating work plans. Youths have also the right to demand practical training. FIA include all youths under 31. There is also a lot of work being put into the co-operation between municipalities and employment offices in so-called “job centres”, which are springing up all over the country. Here, employment services and councils combine offices and co-ordinate their efforts with employment and social affairs. Work pays In Denmark, the idea is that work should pay. Those who get work should see that it is a good idea. They get to keep their social benefit, but also get paid a small salary. 

“In Sweden it is hard to make young people see that it actually pays to get active and work. For instance, what a youth makes from a summer job counts toward the revenue of the entire family, if the family lives off social benefits. In other words, children in these families haven’t got the right to make their own money”, says Verica Stojanovic. 

There are other differences affecting the development too. During the past ten years, Denmark has for instance enjoyed a stronger economic upturn than Sweden. One deciding factor is Denmark’s more de-regulated labour market, and different work security legislation. Sweden still plays by the ‘last in, first out’ rule, and that affects young people’s work situation. Individually tailored help, i.e. taking stock of the needs of each individual youth, and creating a co-operation between municipalities, labour life and employment offices seem to help cutting the number of young unemployed. The same goes for actively seeking the young people out, and not letting go.

 “Individual plans of action are important. It is a good idea to monitor the life situation of each individual person, and implement measures that fit. New research also shows that forced measures don’t work for the long-term unemployed. We shouldn’t blindly believe in measures either. They won’t work if there is no work to be had, of course. It is equally important with structural measures, to create jobs”, says Ilse Julkunen.


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment