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SCB has surveyed the unemployed for 50 years

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

There are 4.5 million people in employment in Sweden - one million more than 50 years ago. That is one conclusion to be drawn from Statistics Sweden’s (SCB) monthly labour market figures delivered over the past 50 years. SCB’s labour surveys, known as AKU, have helped politicians, economists, journalists and other decision makers to get to know the state, development and dynamics of Sweden’s labour market.

SCB began their now well-known labour surveys in August 1961, popularly known as AKU. This fact has been celebrated by a well-attended conference where several hundred people squeezed into a full hall. It began, as befits a birthday party, with coffee and marzipan cake.   

MirzaHassan Mirza is head of AKU and has long experience form conducting labour surveys. He is happy the anniversary has created so much interest. One reason for that, he thinks, is that during all these years his colleagues have worked actively to adapt the statistics to the needs of the users, and the quality has improved year on year - for instance by increasing the number of people questioned in the monthly survey. 29,500 people are now part of the survey and several new charts are drawn up. But it is also important that the information included in AKU remains close to people’s lives and that questions surrounding employment have remained a prioritised policy area. As a result there has always been great interest in the information which comes from  AKU.

Important to be up to date

“The crucial issue has been that there has always been a great need for accessing the information AKU can present, both in order to make economic and labour market policy decisions. And just like in other Nordic countries employment has been and will remain an important issue, which means our surveys have got a lot of exposure. It is also important that we can stay up to date,” says Hassan Mirza.

His words are echoed in a range of interviews in SCB’s in-house publication. For this anniversary politicians, union representatives and journalists have been talking about why AKU is important to them. Minister for Employment Hillevi Engström says SCB visits the Labour Market Committee each month to explain the numbers which show how the labour market looks right now. 

When the Ministry of Employment goes through the fresh statistics, it is mandatory to attend. Minister for Finance, Anders Borg, views the labour surveys as a measure for the state of the markets, where you not only learn how many people are in work or are unemployed, but also how many who work part time or who want to work more but can’t find enough work. The information is important because Sweden’s centre-right coalition government, just like previous Social Democrat governments, aims to have as many people in work as possible. 

“The labour market is central to social cohesion - it is a major part of people’s lives and important to continued income in the shape of pensions. It is an indicator of a structured Sweden - of how we are doing and where we are going,” says Anders Borg in ‘Källa: SCB’. Political editor at national newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Peter Wolodarski, tells the same publication that the public statistics must be of high quality and trustworthy so that the public conversation does not crumble.

Not just employed or in work

Each month for 50 years AKU has published statistics which explain the state, development and dynamics of Sweden’s labour market. There are quarterly and annual reports too. The statistics originally described those who were in work and those who were unemployed, (graph below). 

GraphMän = Men, Kvinnor = Women

Nowadays there is also information on those who are ‘in-between’. Reality can rarely be divided into clear sections, neither can the unemployed and those in work. Many people are neither one or the other, but somewhere in between. Perhaps you have a part-time job and want to increase your hours. The statistics can also reflect permanency - e.g. for how long someone is in a particular situation in the labour market. 

The labour surveys follow the recommendations from the UN’s International Labour Organisation, which makes it easier for the government and parliament, other authorities, researchers and also the social partners to describe the labour market situation with basis in the same statistical source. 

The other Nordic countries perform similar labour surveys, but Hassan Mirza reckons the Swedish AKU is the most comprehensive, partly because of the government’s desire to develop many-faceted statistics. One of the reasons for following the ILO’s recommendations was also to make it possible to compare the statistical material between different countries.

Labour increased by women

50 years of surveys have thrown up clear development tendencies in Sweden’s labour market. The first is that women entered working life. This happened mainly in the 1960s and saw the labour force increase by more than one million people. 

GraphMän = Men, Kvinnor = Women

The second is that the number of employed men fell during the 1970s and 80s. This was because many took early retirement and because during certain periods early retirement was being used more or less as a labour market political measure. During the 1990s economic downturn a third tendency emerged. By then unemployment in Sweden had remained at three percent for a long time, but during the 90s many lost their jobs and unemployment rose to around 11 percent. 

Since then it has averaged out at some seven percent. Unemployment figures settled permanently on a higher level and later boom years have failed to push unemployment rates down to earlier levels. The fourth and latest tendency is that older people stay in work for longer. Hassan Mizra talks about the older people’s return to the labour market.

“We see this same tendency in the Nordic countries, but also in countries outside of the Nordic region. There are reforms to secure that people stay in work until they are older, in Sweden this has happened through changes to social insurance schemes and to the pension system. The ageing population means a lack of labour in the long term. This is what forms the basis for pension system reforms and other labour market reforms. They aim to make it more tempting to leave the labour market at a later stage in life,” says Hassan Mizra.


AKU facts

AKU is a commonly used tool for politicians, social commentators, the social partners, journalists and other people who are interested in employment issues.

The number of 16 to 64 year olds has increased by 23 percent over the past 50 years, from 4.9 million to 6 million people. The labour market’s development over the past 50 years shows four tendencies:

  1. Women’s entry into the labour market.
  2. The number of people in work fell during the 1970s  and 1980s.
  3. Unemployment remained very low until the 1990s economic crisis, at around three percent. During that crisis unemployment rose and has settled at around seven percent.
  4. There is a return of older people to the labour market.

(Source: Press release from SCB 2011-09-30)


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