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Nordic comparative report: Youths loosing their footing

Nordic comparative report: Youths loosing their footing

| Text: Carl-Gustav Lindén, photo: Björn Lindahl

The share of youths who loose their footing is increasing in all of the Nordic countries. Although youth unemployment is a major problem, decision makers should make a more concerted effort to identify and support those most at risk.

This is one of the key findings in a new comparative Nordic research report on youths, education and working life. Young people between 16 and 20 face several crucial life choices and are expected to make major decisions at a stage of their lives which is the most critical in terms of future success in the labour market. 

Youths who do not take further secondary education or leave their studies without graduating are easily knocked out. Their chances of starting a working career are dramatically reduced and they risk ending up in a group which researchers call NEET (not in employment, education or training), in other words youths who are shunted off to the margins of society. Rita Asplund

The Nordic Council of Ministers ordered a research report in order to get an overview of the situation in the Nordic countries. The Nordic Labour Journal has spoken to Research Director Rita Asplund at the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy ETLA in Helsinki, who coordinated the report. 

“There has never been a similar study of youths over a longer period of time in the Nordic countries.”

The researchers have had access to register-based statistics from the Nordic countries which are used to build a common research database. This includes data on three groups of youths from different age groups; those who turned 16 in 1993, 1998 and 2003. Their continued education after elementary school has been followed until 2008, when the economic crisis hit. That means the longest period of monitoring lasted 15 year. 

The Nordic countries use different terminology for post-elementary school studies. In Denmark they are called “ungdomsuddannelse”, in Norway “videregående avsluttende utdanning” while the term used in Sweden is “utbildning på gymnasial nivå” and in Finland “fortsatta studier efter grundskolan i den allmänbildande gymnasieutbildningen och yrkesutbildningen”.


There is more than terminology which sets the countries apart. The authors describe Denmark and Sweden as counterpoints, especially when it comes to vocational training. Denmark has a well-developed apprenticeship system, while vocational training in Sweden is mainly school based. In many regards Finland is similar to Sweden and Norway is similar to Denmark.

“Denmark is also different in that youths seem to manage well even though they have not passed any upper secondary exams. Employment levels are surprisingly high. Do they enter into working life at an early stage and develop skills which see them through despite having nothing more than a basic education?”

The study is highly descriptive so the researchers have no clear answers to their questions. One reason why Danish youths manage without an education could be that the industrial structure is different from in the rest of the Nordic region, which provides more entry points to the labour market for those who lack a degree. 

In Sweden the situation is the opposite: youths who do not stick to an exam timetable tend to end up in the same category as people who have no exam at all.

“There is a very strong pattern, and if you don’t follow it there is an increased risk for marginalisation or problems in the labour market.”

Asplund notes that the Danes appear somewhat phlegmatic: a failure in the labour market does not close other career paths — the system allows for youths to try again.

Fail to sit exams

As the researchers met for the first time, no-one knew what surprises were hiding in the data available. What caused the most amazement was that a large number of youths are stuck in schooling long after they should have passed their exams. 

“We know they are registered as students, but they do not sit their exams. Why is this so, and how is it possible for them to remain and for no-one to take action?” 

In Finland, for instance, just under one in five youths do not have an upper secondary exam at the age of 21, despite most of them spending nearly all their years after elementary school in education. 

“For some reason they fail to finish their studies and therefore end up in a very weak position in the labour market. Chances to find work in Finland for those with only elementary education have been dramatically reduced.”

Meanwhile, their contemporaries who do pass their exams within the normal time do well both in the labour market and in life. It is also encouraging to see that most of the youths do very well. 

The marginalised

One phenomenon has grown in all of the four surveyed countries: a growing group of youths fall outside of society, outside of education and work, outside of social support systems. People at risk include those who struggle with problems at home, and who struggle to succeed in school and in the labour market. It is well documented that youths’ socio-economic background influences how they manage in school and in working life, but the so-called family effect fades with time. 

This study shows that in addition to family circumstances, the experience young people have by the time they are 20/21 has a major effect, and that problems should be tackled in elementary school at the latest. 

“You should follow up what happens when they have left elementary school.”

A warning signal

A warning signal should be sounded for youths who take a gap year after elementary school, a common occurrence in Finland. This is often a strong indication that something has gone wrong, perhaps in the education or job mentoring system. These youths are very prone to end up in the group at risk. This group should be given more attention the researchers think, not least because the social costs of marginalised youths grow very high both socially and economically.

“Mental illness has become an important factor leading to invalidity pension. We talk far too little about the fact that mental illness is increasing more among young people; they experience stress and feel they cannot cope with life.”

The research report stops in the year 2008, but researchers are now following up the subjects further and will expand the analysis while extending the follow-up period to 2012. 

“There are many reports which conclude that youths have had to take the brunt of the fallout of the economic crisis.”

Read the report here:  Youth Unemployment and Inactivity: A comparison of school-to-work transitions and labour market outcomes in four Nordic countries



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