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The Nordics: Failing reforms exclude youths with disabilities

| Text: Berit Kvam

More flexibility does not lead to a more inclusive labour market. Political reforms carried out in the Nordic region in the first decade of the millennium do not have any measurable effects either, concludes the Nordic research group behind the report ‘New Policies to Promote Youth Inclusion’.

What is needed to help minority ethnic youth and young adults with disabilities access the labour market and find permanent jobs? How efficient are political measures? These are questions both politicians and policy makers want answers to. That was also the aim of the Nordic project commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers Labour Market Committee.

Since the 1990s the Nordic countries have introduced new legislation, economic incentives and voluntary agreements to promote inclusion in the labour market. Yet in the report ‘New Policies to Promote Youth Inclusion’, the Nordic group of researchers who have followed developments in the decade since the year 2000 conclude that the policies have actually led to greater inequality rather than improved inclusion into working life.

“There is little doubt that a great number of young people with disabilities have been practically excluded from gainful employment in the Nordic countries,” says the head of the project, Rune Halvorsen from the Oslo and Akershus University College.

The debate in Norway has centred on whether it becomes easier for people to enter the labour market if you relax rules on temporary employment. The researchers have not found anything that indicates that temporary employment makes the labour market more inclusive.

“Denmark has the most flexible labour market in the Nordic region, but does not do better than any of the other Nordic countries in this area. On the contrary, it looks like Denmark is doing worse than Sweden when it comes to including disabled youth into working life,” says Rune Halvorsen.

Together with his colleague Professor Bjørn Hvinden, he has worked with researchers from all of the Nordic countries and gathered data from Eurostat, from the countries’ own statistics agencies as well as carrying out their own surveys.

Fewer in work

“Between 2002 and 2011 employment among youth with disabilities in the Nordic region has not improved in line with the rest of the young population, Sweden being the exception. Denmark has had the most remarkable development, with an eight percent fall in employment,” says Rune Halvorsen, highlighting statistics from Eurostat LFS.

When it comes to employment among youth with disabilities, he divides the Nordic region into two groups. In Denmark and Norway employment has fallen, in Sweden and Finland it has remained unchanged.

Increased difference

The same picture emerges when the researchers compare results for youth with and without disabilities. In Denmark and Norway the employment rate among youth with disabilities is lower than that for young people without physical handicaps. This difference has increased further over the past decade, and the increase has been greater in Denmark than in Norway. In Sweden and Finland things have remained the same.

Between 2005 and 2011 Denmark, Finland and Iceland have seen a very similar development. Employment among young people has fallen. In Iceland and Denmark employment has fallen among people with disabilities and particularly among those with chronic illness which limits their daily activities.

This difference in the employment rate between youth with disabilities and youth with serious chronic illnesses increased further towards 2011. Norway has seen the same development, to a slightly lesser degree, and the difference between youth with less serious and serious disabilities has not had the same accelerating development but remained stable.

Sweden stands out

The general trend between 2005 and 2011 for youth with disabilities has been that employment has fallen or remained stable, but Sweden stands out. There the employment rate among youth with disabilities has increased in this period, especially among youth with serious, chronic illnesses.

Fewer in education

The Nordic countries have also seen different developments when it comes to education. In Denmark and Finland fewer youth with disabilities were in education between 2002 and 2011 compared to youth without disabilities. The differences have increased over the past decade. The same goes for Norway. The differences have not increased in the same period, but remained quite stable. Here too Sweden stands out, with more youth with disabilities in education, and the difference between youth with and without disabilities has fallen.

Things are different for youth with serious disabilities. The education rate among youth with serious disabilities has risen in Denmark, particularly between 2008 and 2011, while the opposite has happened in Sweden, where the increase in employment has been bigger.

Young outsiders - NEET

“We see no signs of improvement here,” says project leader Rune Halvorsen about the NEET group.

The number of people not in employment, education or training has remained stable between 2000 and 2010 in all of the Nordic countries, according to the Eurostat LFS disability ad hoc module. When in comes to youth with disabilities, the number of NEETs has risen in Denmark and Norway, while it has remained stable in Finland and fallen in Sweden. There is little difference between youth with our without disabilities in Sweden, while the difference is particularly big in Iceland.

Minority youths

When it comes to minority ethnic youth, the situation is more complicated. It looks like the chance of getting a job has improved for this group in Denmark, Finland and Sweden. The number of NEETs has also fallen, especially in Finland and Denmark, where many have continued their education. In Norway the employment rate has remained unchanged, but more have entered into education.

Policies with poor result

There has been a change in Nordic policies from economic redistribution to political measures aimed at including more youth with disabilities and minority ethnic youth into the labour market. The result has been more inequality rather than more integration.

“It does not look like political reforms in the Nordic countries have increased employment opportunities for youth with disabilities. On the contrary, many have been excluded from the labour market.”

Better statistics needed

“But we need better, comparable statistics,” says Rune Halvorsen.

“Eurostat recommends a joint definition for all the countries, but the definitions are being adapted in national surveys.

“There are, for instance, different definitions of ‘employment’. In Denmark apprenticeships are considered employment, but this is not the case in the other Nordic countries.

“When it comes to disabilities it is difficult to know what is considered to be a serious disability, and it is unclear whether the same questions are being asked over time.”

Employers afraid of hiring

The researchers have highlighted mechanisms which enable or prevent the labour market aspects for the two youth groups. Interviews with employers have unveiled that they fear minority ethnic youth and youth with disabilities will stand out too much and not fit in at work, and that this could influence workplace culture. Rather than recognise their responsibility, they fear increased costs.

The transition from education to work is particularly challenging.

What works?

These are complex processes which demand complex solutions. We have looked at a wide spectre of measures in order to reach these groups,” says project leader Rune Halvorsen.

Download the publication here

New Policies to Promote Youth Inclusion

New Policies document

‘New Policies to Promote Youth Inclusion / Accommodation of diversity in the Nordic Welfare States’ is the report from the research project ‘Social regulation in Nordic Welfare States: The Impact on Employment among Youth from Ethnic Minorities and Youth with Disabilities’ (Project No. 11143).

The project was initiated in 2011 by the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Labour Market Committee, under the Committee of Senior Officials for Labour.

Rune Halvorsen has led the project together with Bjørn Hvinden, both from NOVA at the Oslo and Akershus University College.

Download the report here:
Rune Halvorsen

Rune Halvorsen

Rune Halvorsen is part of the leadership team for the EU project DISCIT - Making Persons With Disabilities Full Citizens, and is a Norwegian partner in the EU projects COPE - Combating Poverty in Europe and PATHWAYS - Participation to Healthy Workplaces and Inclusive Strategies in the Work Sector. He is a member of the Norwegian Child Welfare Agency’s reference group for the establishment of a system to explore which opportunities people with disabilities have for social participation in Norway.


Bjørn Hvinden

Bjørn Hvinden

Bjørn Hvinden head of research/professor at the Centre for Welfare and Labour Research at the Oslo and Akershus University College.

He currently heads two EU projects, one about active citizenship for people with disabilities (2013-16) and one about young people’s job insecurity, as well as a project for the Research Council of Norway on sustainable European welfare societies (2014-17).

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