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”Don’t punish us, astonish us”

”Don’t punish us, astonish us”

| Text: Gunhild Wallin, photo: Björn Lindahl

To really listen to young people and see each individual in light of their own merit, cooperating across sectors while also focusing on schools - where life-long learning begins. To learn from the other Nordic countries and benefit from the common Nordic labour market - these were all themes when Nordic prime ministers and labour ministers met in Stockholm on 16 May.

The conference 'More Youth in Work' gathered 600 people at Stockholm's Fryshuset - widely known for its work with young people at risk of becoming outsiders. Beatrice Clarke, who works there, introduced the meeting by shedding a light on the reality faced by many young people, not least in the suburbs - a world where criminals are better than employers at recruiting youths. 

"Forgotten kids become suburban kings and it doesn't matter which methods we use if we don't understand why young people become outsiders," Beatrice Clarke told the government ministers.

Citing Fryshuset's founder Anders Carlberg, she also challenged the politicians: "Don't punish us, astonish us."

"Everyone was there"

Sweden's Minister for Employment, Hillevi Engström, was the conference host. 'More Youth in Work' was organised as part of Sweden’s Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers. 

The huge number of participants, not least top politicians, was proof of the great interest in this issue. All the Nordic prime ministers took part, as well as all the labour ministers with the exception of Iceland, where a new government was just being formed. There were also representatives from Greenland, the Faeroes and Åland.

Hillevi Engström used her opening speech to point out how unique it was that politicians, social partners and organisations from across the Nordic region were gathered to discuss youth unemployment. The situation varies between the Nordic countries, with Norway enjoying low unemployment also among young people, while Sweden and Finland have many young unemployed. 

“We are facing a considerable challenge, and for many youths the road back [to employment] is long and winding. But we have much in common in the Nordic region and can meet the challenges side by side,” said Hillevi Engström.

A priority

Youth unemployment is without doubt a priority for the Nordic countries.

“All unemployment is bad and youth unemployment is wrong,” said Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Danish Prime Minister, talked about the importance of preventing another lost generation. 

This happened in Denmark during the 1980s, which she experienced growing up herself. Many of her contemporaries who didn't find work then are now living on early retirement. 

Helle Thorning-Schmidt underlined the importance of not getting stuck on benefits but get into paid work. Those who can, must work, and those who can't must be given help.

Globalisation and technological advance

“Getting youths into work is one of the most important tasks facing us. Everyone, regardless of background, should have the chance to take part in society. Yet this is our sore point and we know that we ought to be doing more,” she said. 

Sweden's Minister for Finance Anders Borg provided a macro perspective on the development which has made it particularly difficult for many young people to get into the labour market. We are living through tough times, he said. The crisis is testing for the labour market and there is a risk that unemployment takes root. Then there is globalisation and technological progress which means the labour market is also facing structural changes. Fewer people do more and this puts pressure on people with lower education in particular.

Anders Borg highlighted four main focus areas for getting young people into work: education, the transition from education to work, creating demand for those with the weakest position in the labour market as well as the matching of unemployed people to vacant positions.

“It is important to discuss our problems and to have the courage to face them. The key to the Nordic countries’ progress is to manage these changes. The social partners are our strength, but we must use them actively. It is also important to underline that there is no single solution to this,” said Anders Borg.
Many of the participating politicians also suggested it was important to start with the individual. There are no standard concepts, so there is a need to find solutions which inspire the individual and fits him or her. More jobs must also be created.

Start in schools

Education was time and again described as the single most important issue. "No one in our time has ever learned enough" said Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Finland is often praised for its good education, and the Finnish Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen honoured the teachers for that. 

"Our strength is our teacher training. It is of high quality and teachers learn new ways of teaching. There is also increasingly a better link between schools and businesses," said Jyrki Katainen.

The labour ministers laid out what each country does for its young unemployed and also talked about the group which represents the greatest worry - so-called NEETs (neither in education, employment or training). Norway's Minister of Labour Anniken Huitfeldt talked about a follow-up service for school drop-outs. Sweden has a similar scheme. 

"Earlier, it was possible for those with no education to find work, but today skills are needed across the Nordic labour market. If you don't know how to write, you are in a very weak position. That is the most important issue and we are focusing on it," she said.

Also hope

During the day there was also time to look at the good examples and to express hope for the future. After all, many young people are unemployed for shorter periods of time only. The most optimistic noise came from Åland, where there are many nationalities and many jobs.

“Move to Åland! We have plenty of jobs,” said Åland’s Minister for Trade and Industry Fredrik Karlström.


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