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23rd Jan 2020

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Nordic seniors: School's not out forever

"School's out for summer. School's out for ever," sang rock star Alice Cooper back in 1972.

But the generations that left school some 40 to 50 years ago might now be heading back to class.

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  • Nordic Council rapporteur Poul Nielson want a mandatory right for people to go back to school as they approach retirement age. (Photo: European Commission)

According to a proposal by Nordic Council rapporteur Poul Nielson, they should be given a mandatory right to go back to school as they approach retirement age.

"The combination of rapid technological development with the gradual increase in retirement age increases the need for new forms of education," he told EUobserver.

Nielson is a member of the Danish social democrat party and has in the past served as a minister and as an EU commissioner.

He was tasked last year to conduct a strategic review of the labour market in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Aaland on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

"The Nordic governments should commit to the principle of introducing mandatory adult and continuing training for everybody in the labour markets”, he said.

"After all, the fact that children and young people need to be educated, and that society has a responsibility for this, has not been controversial for over 100 years”.

Nielson's plan is included in his analysis of the future Nordic labour market "Working life in the Nordic region: Challenges and proposals”, published in June.

He is currently going around the Nordic political summer festivals to present and discuss the idea.

His tour started at the People's Political Festival on Bornholm in Denmark in June, moving on to Swedish Almedalsveckan this week (4 July), SuomiAreena in Finland, Norwegian Arendal Week and ending in Reykjavik early September.

"We might be able in the Nordic countries to engineer more flexible but still real ways of reigning in these active members of a new type of labour market”, he told EUobserver.

"It is not a huge problem for the very well educated. But with a rising pension age, people approaching 60-65 years - who still has 5-10 years more on the labour market - they should have the opportunity to refresh their skills seriously. And as a new mandatory right," he said.

"Basically it is like lifting mandatory education to the next level”, he added.

"I am not moving into designing in any detail what it should be, for how long a period, is it once or twice or whatever? This is all something to be debated. But the spark is this simple word ‘mandatory’.

This is enough to stir up a debate which would otherwise never become anything without that single word thrown into the game”.

Self-employed

Based on more than 100 interviews Nielson's report also identified an increased tendency to use temporary employment agencies and subcontractors and warned it will lead to a fragmentation of the Nordic labour market.

"Distance work, not least IT functions, communications and various forms of consultancy, are performed on the basis of more or less formalised contracts, but typically without security for these self employed persons as regards termination of the employment relationship, pensions, parental leave, holiday pay or many other rights which are settled in regular employment relationships," his report noted.

"Most of those who end up in the ‘self-employed’ category do so out of necessary due to the difficulty of getting a regular job, not as a preferred alternative," he said.

The trade unions are no longer able to safeguard their interests through collective agreements with employers. It is a development that worries the old social democrat deeply.

"They are totally on their own. So both in the short term and the long term, these people risk ending up as a real disorganised, very poor proletariat, especially when they grow older," Nielson said.

In his quest for ideas to develop some sort of organisation to cover the self-employed, he pointed to the ways in which, for instance, freelance journalists, artists and similar independent operators are organised.

But what would Nielson eventually study himself, should he go back to school?

"I am 73. I might be interested in studying the labour market”, he joked. “Really, I would like to learn photography or more gardening than I already know”.

Nordic employment ministers will discuss his report in November, but the implementation of its recommendations will remain a matter of national competence.

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