Life-long learning can transform EU labour markets, experts say

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This article is part of our special report Quo Vadis Health and Safety at Work?.

SPECIAL REPORT / With increased life expectancies and an ageing workforce, politicians and employers alike must invest in life-long learning programmes so that workers fully adapt to new working conditions and are able to seize new opportunities, experts say.

In the face of skewed demographics, with a shrinking workforce and a major part of the population retiring, many EU governments have recently raised the legal retirement age, which  currently stretches from 59 years for women in Romania and the Czech Republic to 67-68 in Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece and Denmark.

Earlier this year, Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, said that his country must consider raising the legal retirement age to 75, in order to finance the Swedish welfare state in a global world economy.

Reinfeldt argued that when half of today's children in Sweden can expect to become 100 years old, Swedes will have to change the way they view their work-life balance.

To be able to work until the age of 75, the Swedish prime minister said he envisioned at least one career change during a person's working life, as the job one may have as a young person could become too tough or stressful at a later age.

Reinfeldt has also proposed that Swedish workers with tough physical jobs be re-educated when they are around 50 years old in order to change career to enable them to work until 75.

Life-long learning

Marianne Levinsen, chief scientist at Fremforsk, the Centre for Future Studies in Denmark, told EURACTIV that Reinfeldt’s proposal “makes sense”, but the retirement age is still a politically very sensitive issue in the EU depending on nationality and would be difficult to get through in a country such as France.

While raising the retirement age in many EU member states would be a responsible way to change policies, this might be a difficult measure to get through, Levinsen said, as the majority of voters will also be older and unlikely to back fewer rights.

However, the scientist called Reinfeldt’s idea of giving workers with strenuous jobs a new education “unrealistic”.

“There is a reason why these people didn’t get a good education in the first place and had to take on these kinds of jobs. What is much more important is to keep lifting the level of skills of the people you have hired or those who are unemployed, so that they continue to get better. Then they will be capable of taking on other jobs eventually,” Levinsen said.

Serge Volkoff, a statistician and director of research at the Centre for Employment Studies (CEE), also stressed the importance of life-long learning for workers.

“I would say that the Swedish prime minister is partly right. I wouldn’t say that suddenly at 50, having a big and long period of training would allow you to completely change your job,” said Volkoff.

“I would rather praise a life-long learning from the very beginning when you start a tough physical job and everyone is aware of the risks, then you start thinking about what is going to happen afterwards,” the research director said.

Healthy environments

In addition to upgrading skills for workers, politicians and employers must create “sustainable work systems”, Volkoff stated, meaning that health and skills competences can continue being developed.

“It’s true that we have to have policies that prevent as much as possible health declining and competences becoming obsolete. The development of our countries should go hand in hand with improvements concerning working conditions and life-long learning,” the French expert said, adding that in those EU countries with unfortunate demographics, active policies to improve work conditions are crucial.

Levinsen highlighted that “good bosses” are also a necessity.

“Research shows that what will lift our productivity and efficiency is new digital systems and technologies, but the people who need to make sure that we get these technologies are in the management,” she said.

Not the new America

Despite the crisis-led pressure and stress, Europe is not becoming the US, but will keep its social model, experts agreed.

“The difference is that we have decided that we want welfare states with social security nets and access to universal healthcare. This is something we expect of our politicians and state whereas in the US, there has always been a great resistance to the state interfering with anything,” the scientist said, adding that some rights will disappear as they are from a different time.

“We will have to look at our social systems, but we will still keep them because this is an ideological difference. We believe that it’s good to have these social systems in Europe. We like that the state makes sure that there is a minimum standard of services,” Levinsen stated.

Volkoff added that the role of trade unions ought to remain “very precious” in the future as trade unions have an ability and capacity to build links between individual situations and that the ageing issue is being felt by people at a personal level.

In 2011, a European Parliament report on the Occupational Safety and Health at work (OSH) led by MEP Karima Delli stressed that further harmonisation at EU level had to be developed, especially in tackling the development of new psycho-social risks.

Even though EU legislation on OSH existed in the form of a 1989 framework directive and other directives on specific risks or sectors, like REACH, psycho-social risks were not sufficiently dealt with, highlighted the Parliament’s report.

The Commission is currently undertaking in-depth analysis in order to decide on the next steps concerning a  future EU occupational health and safety policy framework.

This in-depth analysis includes an evaluation of the previous EU OSH Strategy 2007-2012,  consultation of relevant stakeholders such as  the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work and Senior Labour Inspectors' Committee, and obtaining feedback from all interested parties through the public consultation launched in the summer of 2013.

The precise timing of the strategy has not been decided but it could be in the Spring of 2014.

  • 10-11 Dec. 2013: Conference in Brussels: Jobs take their toll: Understanding the impact of ageing, gender and occupational hazards on workers
  • Spring 2014: Commission might come out with a strategy - or a policy framework -on health and safety

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