More "disabled" in Sweden?
People in Sweden who cannot find work may be categorized as disabled, which in turn may make it more difficult for them to find employment over the long run. Their difficulties reflect a prevailing sense that an individual needs conform to certain norms to find work, according to a study of the Swedish Public Employment Service.
Twenty years ago, one in ten of these persons looking for work through the Swedish Public Employment Service (Arbetsförmedlingen) was considered to have some form of functional disability or reduced work ability.
Now, more than 25 percent can be categorised in this manner, according to a comparison of job-seekers who contacted the employment service in 1992 and in 2011.
Mental function handicaps and socio-medical disabilities are two categories that have expanded during the last two decades. The latter includes a wide range of characteristics, including criminal backgrounds, deviant appearance and obesity to body piercing and poor personal hygiene.
Companies are reluctant to hire people who are different from the norm. When these people can’t find jobs they have to rely on unemployment benefits. To qualify for such assistance, they have to have codes assigned to their problem categories so their information can be computerized.
This may reward them with money now, but that code can haunt them later on.
“People who are considered unemployable are classified as having reduced work abilities. And those who are classified as having reduced work abilities are seen as unemployable. According to this logic, failing to live up to the demands of the labour market comprises a type of reduced work ability in its own right,” researchers Ida Seing of Linköping University and Kerstin Jacobsson of Gothenburg University are quoted as saying in a press release.
Attitude and conduct now more important
The two researchers interviewed staff members at Arbetsförmedlingen who do the coding for functional disabilities. These employees noted a change in attitude in Swedish society over the past couple of decades.
“To land a job now, it’s no longer enough to have the right education and relevant work experience. You also need to display the proper attitude and conduct. Who you are as a person is becoming steadily more important than your relevant capabilities,” says Seing.
The interview subjects working at Arbetsförmedlingen admited to personally contributing to what they call a negative development.
“If we take away all the people who aren’t mainstream, what’s left? A little group of ‘yes-people’. I think everyone should be included.”
“We now talk of people having functional disabilities who would never have been given such labels 20 years ago. You don’t need to be very scruffy before you are useless to the labour market.”
Little tangible about the brutalisation of the workplace
Work has never been physically easier. People in the Nordic countries work shorter hours and have longer vacations than ever before. Still, a considerable share of the population is out of the workforce – even though the use of the term “considerable” might depend on your political bent.
In Norway, the Nordic country with the lowest unemployment, 6.4 percent of the population, about 209,000 persons, were classified with reduced working ability by the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) in July 2013.
“As we see it working life has become harder, productivity requirements are more stringent. While there used to be more leeway for people who couldn’t perform 100 percent, many would now say they’ve been squeezed out,” says Simen Markussen, a researcher at the University of Oslo and the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research.
There’s an assertion that people with poor health were formerly spread evenly inside and outside the workforce, but now they are exclusively outside.
That would probably be an exaggeration. In any case it is hard to find figures to prove or disprove the allegation.
Nonetheless, a Norwegian study from 2007 gives some sense of what the figures might be. Three researchers checked to see whether the population had become more infirm or was in poorer health from 1996 to 2003, a period when outlays on disability insurance rose considerably. The answer was absolutely not.
Public health remained the same. Something else must have caused the spike in the welfare outlays.
“What you need is data from the past and present that objectively describes people’s health and their relationship with the labour market,” says Markussen.
“Lots of studies in Norway use data from the National Insurance Scheme registry but it doesn’t pinpoint health; it just reveals whether you receive payments from the scheme. There can be lots of reasons for receiving these benefits.”
Who’s responsible for your employment?
If working life really is becoming more ruthless, we have a problem that is hard to rectify. An individual company and society in general would not share the same incentives for change, explains Markussen.
“It’s obvious that a company can easily make itself more efficient by getting rid of employees who don’t work so well. Clearly, they would do better by trading these people in for ones who are more effective,” Markussen says.
“But for general society this is a poor way to become more efficient. The objective on such a macro level is to get more people into jobs.”
Seing says in the Linköping press release that unemployment has been turned into an individualised problem. It’s become each person’s duty to fit into the standard formats of working life.
Markussen doesn’t quite agree with that view.
“That statement needs to be read at least in part within the context of debates raging in Sweden. The current non-socialist government has been keen on making tougher demands on the people,” he says.
“If you asked for a comment from the right wing in Norway, they would be just as likely to say that working and taking responsibility for your own life has evolved from something personal over to being in the realm of the State, to NAV. I would call this politically charged rhetoric, rather than a neutral observation.”
K. Jacobsson og I. Seing (2013) En möjliggörande arbetsmarknadspolitik? Arbetsförmedlingens utredning och klassificering av klienters arbetsförmåga, anställbarhet och funktionshinder. Arbetsmarknad & Arbetsliv, vol. 19, nr. 1
Translated by: Glenn Ostling
- C. Ihlebæk, S. Brage og H.R. Eriksen (2007) Health complaints and sickness absence in Norway, 1996–2003. Occupational Medicine, nr. 57, side 43-49