The Nordic countries. (The Washington Post)

“To prepare ourselves for the future we need to think out of the box in education and training. It would be a visionary decision if the Nordic countries, jointly and with the involvement of the social partners, developed a model for putting into practice the principle that adult education and in-service training will be a mandatory element of working life.”

That comes from a report titled “Working Life in the Nordic Region” that is being considered by Nordic countries in an effort to create more job diversity, keep the aging population in the ever-changing workforce, and pursue innovation.

For those who don’t remember a thing from geography class — or who never took it — the Nordic countries are in northern Europe and generally refer to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and territories (Greenland, the Faroe Islands and the Åland Islands). In 1952, the countries agreed to form the Nordic Council of Ministers, an inter-parliamentary forum for cooperation between the Nordic countries, and in 1954 created a common Nordic labor market that was considered progressive at the time. Now, the report says, with an aging workforce, structural changes in the economy and technological evolution, “today we ought to be in the forefront in meeting the challenges of the future.”

The author of the report, Nordic Council rapporteur Poul Nielson, who is a member of Denmark’s Social Democrats party and was once a European Union commissioner, told the E.U. Observer that mandatory education would apply to older workers who needed training and education because “the combination of rapid technological development with the gradual increase in retirement age increases the need for new forms of education.”  The story said:

“It is not a huge problem for the very well educated. But with a rising pension age, people approaching 60 to 65 years — who still have 5 to 10 years more on the labor 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.

A story on Quartz about the proposal notes that a 2012 E.U. report on aging says “the number of people aged 80 years and up in Europe is projected to nearly triple from 23.7 million in 2010, to 62.4 million in 2060.”

In Denmark, for example, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation reported in 2015 that the ratio of the population 65 and older to the population ages 20 to 64 is projected to increase from 30 percent in 2012 to 43 percent in 2050. And retirement ages in the Nordic countries are set to rise. For example, in Denmark, the current retirement age is 65, but it is set to be 67 by 2022, and starting in 2030, it will increase depending on increases in the average lifespan. In 2008, the mandatory retirement of 70 for civil servants was abolished, and while it is still in place for the private sector, there have been calls for change.

This is one of the proposals in his report:

Proposal No. 7:
The Nordic governments should commit to the principle of introducing mandatory adult and continuing training for everybody in the labor markets in the Nordic region and, together with the social partners, should decide to implement experimental activities via joint pilot projects as described here in the two basic models for implementation of the principle.

In connection with this necessary upgrading of education and training as a more systematic and integrated part of working life in the future, it will be important for society and the social partners to show responsibility and solidarity to that category of citizens who quite simply are unable to keep up, for whom the requirement of up-skilling is perceived more as a threat than an opportunity. It is politically incorrect to say it, but it is disingenuous to claim that everybody can be educated to fulfill a productive and meaningful role in the labor market of the future. In tandem with the competitive demands of digitalization, technological advances and globalization, we must be prepared for the likelihood that this residual group will increase, and society must prepare to provide these citizens a secure and decent existence. It is of course not easy to define the boundaries of this category in terms of labor market policy and social policy. The point is, however, that the easy answers that “everybody can do something, everybody can learn something and must have a job” are not necessarily either realistic or especially humanely compassionate.

Such an education initiative, the report says, could help lift the “Nordic countries into a winning position in the global competition” and for that reason it “deserves to be tried.” The report further says:

One can imagine two basic models in the attempt to make this vision a reality. The systemically most ambitious would be a joint development project decided by the Nordic Council of Ministers and with a joint Nordic steering group with the participation of the social partners, where pilot projects in the various countries comprising various parts of the labor market could be used to test their feasibility and to determine the costs. The public sector needs to accept this approach as a necessary and forward-looking continuation of the investment in education and training that has been the pattern hitherto. 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. The involvement of labor market organizations will be essential — not least because it is they, consistent with the negotiated basis of the evolution of working life, who will be able to ensure a balance between obligations and rights in such a system, as well as the relevance of the content of mandatory adult training.

The other basic model is perhaps less systemic and ambitious and would be  based on an organic and less controlled increase in agreements between the parties that would progressively cover more and more of the overall labor market, adapted to the many different conditions that prevail from sector to sector etc. The role of the state in this model would be  to facilitate and economically encourage  this development. The role of Nordic cooperation in this model would be to bring together initiatives and agreements, ensure immediate exchange of experiences and stimulate the dissemination of best practices.

Regardless of which model might be decided by the governments, the very fact that something of the sort is being launched in the Nordic region would contribute to increased understanding of the potential we have in the innovative negotiating culture in the Nordic model.