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More part time jobs mean worse working environments for young people

More part time jobs mean worse working environments for young people

| Text and photo: Gunhild Wallin

Young workers represent a heterogeneous group facing complex risks in working life. That means it is no longer enough to just focus on the young people themselves. In order to secure preventative working environment measures you also need to look at surrounding issues.

The challenge is to acknowledge the complexity and encourage new combined efforts to improve young people’s working environments, says a new Nordic report.   

“What surprised me in this work is that we have fallen into a trap by solely focusing on the young workers, rather than looking at the underlying complexity of the working environment issues facing young people in working life. I want to shine a light on these complex connections with this report,” says Pete Kines, Senior Researcher at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark.

Pete Kines is the main author of the report ‘Young workers’ working environment in the Nordic countries’ which will be presented at the conference ‘Young people’s working environment’ in Stockholm on 9 October. The report was commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers which has been focusing on young people during the Swedish Presidency. 

“It is particularly important to protect young people’s working environments to make sure they can get a foothold in the labour market with the best possible working conditions,” writes Sweden’s newly appointed Minister for Employment Elisabeth Svantesson in the report’s introduction. 

The report aims to map the working situation for young people between 15 and 24 in the Nordic countries. How, where and how much do young people work, which legislation and rules govern their working environments, which risks are they facing and what kind of injuries do they get if they have accidents? The authors carried out an extensive trawl of existing literature which resulted in 10,000 publications, out of which 81 have been used for this study. They also used statistics from the different countries.

The Nordic countries are fairly similar when it comes to legislation and regulation of young people’s working conditions. If you’re under 18 there is a range of regulations covering working hours, the right to take breaks as well as working situations which young people should not be exposed to, e.g. dangerous machinery. The focus often rests on risks which young people might face in working life, with less focus on how to protect against more long-term dangers. There is also not much research on how bad working environments might affect young people later in life, although some studies are being initiated now.

Industrious Danes and Icelanders

Most 15 to 19 year olds work in the retail or grocery sector, but many also work in hotels and restaurants. 19 to 24 year olds often work in the health sector (women) or in the construction industry and in warehouses (men). There are great variations in the employment rate between the different countries, especially for people between 15 and 19. Young Icelanders and Danes work considerably more than their Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish contemporaries. 52 percent of Icelandic 15 to 19 year olds work, in Denmark the number is 44 percent, in Norway 35 percent, in Finland 24 percent while only 16 percent of Swedes in the same age group work. Many are in low-paid, unskilled jobs with irregular working hours. Young workers represent a very heterogeneous group, according to the report. They can be moonlighting students, students on work experience, in traineeships or students who have left school. Work varies too, from full-time employment to shift work, self employment or part-time work. There are many variations – one indication that young people in working life cannot be seen as a homogenous group.

So how dangerous can it be to be a young worker? Young people run a lower risk of being fatally injured at work, but run a greater risk than older colleagues to suffer non-fatal injuries. This particularly applies to young men in retail, construction or manufacturing industries. Agriculture, forestry, hunting and fisheries are also sectors with high injury risks.

Dramatic increase in part-time work

The report clearly illustrates the dramatic increase in the number of 15 to 19 year olds who are in part-time employment – especially young women. As more and more shops stay open at weekends and in the evenings, it is first and foremost young women who man the tills and who serve customers. It used to be older women, but as the number of young women part-time workers is up, the number of older women part-time workers has fallen. This is one of the examples Pete Kines wants to highlight when he speaks about complex connections. 

“Young part-time workers might not get the same introduction as full-time employees, nor the same follow-up. And they are not always seen as proper employees, perhaps not even in their own eyes. They also often work during the most intensive hours with more customers and stress, when regular staff have gone home. The adults are no longer there, nor are the bosses,” says Pete Kines.

Between school and work

The picture is usually different within industries. Young people who work there often work during daytime hours and can rely on older workers for support and help. But it is important not to forget that young people, no matter where they work, often find themselves in a transition between school and working life. This is also a factor which adds complexity to the picture, especially as the reasons for working can vary greatly from person to person. Some begin to work because they no longer want to go to school, others are moonlighting in evenings and at weekends. For many young people the entry into the labour market has been postponed, which means those who are 18 or older no longer benefit from the protection of working environment legislation and regulation aimed at younger workers – even thought they might be entering into working life for the first time.

“When a young person starts working he or she steps into the adult world and initially find themselves in a transition phase between school and working life. They see how adults in the workplace approach risks, what kind of safety culture exists in the workplace and even if that culture does not fit with what they have been taught about safety they will imitate what they see and what other adults do. They are being socialised into a risk behaviour and thus they will be future proponents of that bad work culture,” says Pete Kines.

Think boldly!

The need to view young people as a heterogenous group and to understand what transition phases between school and working life might mean to the individual young person represents one of the report’s main conclusions. Yet it is not enough to focus on the individual young person’s opportunities to improve the working environment. It is equally important to look at the young person’s surroundings. What characterises the sector in which the young person works, the working tasks he or she must carry out and which culture is typical for that particular workplace? How is work organised and how can it promote or hinder the improvement of the working environment? Who are the colleagues and how do they think about and work with the working environment? These factors make up the complex world which is the young person’s working environment, and the ambition to improve the working environment is necessary in order to begin to understand it, says Pete Kines. 

He appeals to anyone who in any shape or form is involved in young people’s working environment – be it employers, educators, safety officers, the social partners – to think boldly. Dare to see how heterogenous the group of young workers is, but don’t focus solely on the young people themselves. Also focus on the complex working life they are facing. Risks and dangers in working life can be prevented through cooperation and engagement. 

"I would like to see a Vision Zero for young workers' working environment, like Sweden's programme aimed at preventing fatal traffic accidents," says Pete Kines.


The report  ‘Young workers’ working environment in the Nordic countries’ was published on 9 October on commission from the Nordic Council of Ministers during Sweden’s Presidency. A Nordic conference on young people’s working environments was held on the same day in Stockholm.  

Senior researcher Pete Kines at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark wrote the report with help from colleagues Elisabeth Framke and Elizabeth Bentsen and Anne Salmi from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

Their aim has been to map the working environment situation for young workers between 15 and 24 in the Nordic countries, and the report looks at legislation, employment rate and work-related injuries or bad health. It also suggests ways of improving young people’s working environments.


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