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10 year Swedish research programme into the future of working life

10 year Swedish research programme into the future of working life

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Green change, globalisation and artificial intelligence are among the changes facing the labour market today and in the future. In 2017, a ten-year-long research programme was launched in Sweden, aimed to better understand and tackle the future challenges facing working life.

“The labour market is in the midst of incredible change and working life shapes both our individual lives and society as a whole. The programme represents a unique opportunity to address the working life issues that are most important and to develop new insight. Our research is also meant to be adaptable and applicable,” says Anna-Karin Florén, head of the research council Forte’s decades-long national working life research programme.

Digitalisation, demographic change, globalisation, automation and the green shift are all parts of the structural changes that are all happening simultaneously. 

“Many of the challenges we see in the labour market are not new, but the context is new,” says Anna-Karin Florén.

Impact of the pandemic

Digitalisation is one typical example – it got a huge and unexpected boost during the pandemic. Suddenly large groups of people were working from home, which impacts many parts of working life – including the work environment, leadership and organisation.

It is still too early to draw conclusions about the pandemic’s effect on working life, but Anna-Karin Florén believes it will certainly raise many research questions going forward. 

“We have no hard and fast results for how the pandemic has impacted on working life yet, so it is too early to say anything about its effects. But it has influenced our research, partly because it has been harder to gather empirical data from workplaces,” she says.

Artificial intelligence is another example of dramatic change, and it is taking over more and more administrative functions. What will that mean for older women, whose jobs are at risk of being taken over by AI? Retail is also undergoing rapid change, a sector that employs more women than any other, bar the health sector. Many physical shops have closed during the pandemic.    

Online retail has grown and in physical shops self-checkout is becoming increasingly common. Retail has also traditionally been a labour market stepping stone for young people. What happens to them when technology replaces many shop assistants’ jobs? And what are the alternatives for women who lose their retail jobs? The ten-year research programme aims to gather enough knowledge in order to face these challenges. 

“Structural change will be a good thing for many, but it also represents major challenges. Society must find ways of making structural change easier to handle, and develop safeguards to prevent large groups of people from falling outside of the system. Our research is crucial because it gives a knowledge-base for decision-makers,” says Anna-Karin Florén. 

13 future challenges

The national labour market research programme is one of seven programmes launched in 2017 as a result of the Swedish government’s ten-year-long research programme aimed at identifying and addressing the challenges facing society today. Six new programme areas have been added since 2021, including migration and integration, applied welfare research, mental health, climate, democracy and antibiotics resistance. 

Forte divides the world of work into three areas – labour market, work organisation and work environment. To fund the research programme, the research council has at its disposal 80 million kronor this year and 100 million kronor per year in the coming four years (€7.7m and €9.6m respectively).

“The world of work is such a wide area and covers everything from how you sit on your office chair to global trends. So it is important to get your priorities right,” says Anna-Karin Florén.

Update this spring

The work is undertaken according to a strategic research agenda which will be updated this spring, halfway through the programme’s ten-year run. The agenda focuses on particular challenges facing the labour market and is agreed upon through dialogue with researchers, the social partners, authorities and civil society.

The strategic research agenda has identified three main challenges: Creating a sustainable and inclusive labour market, promoting good work environments and creating a health-promoting working life. 

“We have gathered relevant stakeholders to identify the challenges in working life, which needs must be followed up and to find out what is happening elsewhere in the world. Our work, like the other programmes, is also informed by the overriding issues of gender equality and Agenda 2030.  

“Our strategic agenda, which will be presented this spring, has also included global issues impacting on working life, like the possible consequences of the pandemic and the green shift's impact on the labour market,” says Anna-Karin Florén.

The programme also involves creating networks for researchers and other stakeholders to meet and discuss challenges as well as ways of spreading the results that are beginning to come in. Cross-discipline projects and international cooperation is encouraged. 

The impact the green shift will have on working life is something Anna-Karin Florén considers to be a new and so far relatively unknown area of research going forward. Funding was recently granted for research in this area. 

An advisory committee assesses research applications. Academic excellence has top priority, but the applicability of the research is also taken into account. 

Applicable research results

Florén calls the labour market research programme “challenge-driven”, meaning all research initiatives are built on challenges that have been identified by labour market stakeholders, and on the government’s desire to find solutions.

This approach is sometimes criticised by researchers who want to do basic research and not be told to work within certain existing research areas. Forte also allows researchers to apply for funds to choose their own line of enquiry. The government’s latest research bill from 2021 also says there should be opportunities to carry out so-called free research or basic research.

“Forte is a research council that finances both basic and applied research within the areas of health, working life and welfare,” says Anna-Karin Florén.

Nordic research cooperation

As head of programme for the ten-year-long labour market programme, she also serves as a representative for several Nordic research backers at NordForsk. She is on the programme committee for programme finance in cooperation between Forte and NordForsk within the “Future working life” area. 

“When talking to Nordic colleagues, I see that we share many interests and challenges, for instance the impact of digitalisation in all of our countries. We are similar but dissimilar enough to learn from each other,” says Anna-Karin Florén.


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