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Our Future Relies on the Work of Women

More older and fewer younger citizens. In order for the Nordic welfare societies to respond to the needs of their citizens in the future, they need to utilise women better in the labour market.

Nurse Cleaning Hospital Equipment
Photo: Colourbox

Imagine it is the year 2030. You are 85 years old and you have a broken leg after falling at home. You really should not live at home by yourself because you are no longer able to do the necessary household chores. Yet, nor can you move to an elderly care centre anytime soon since the waiting list is long – not because of lack of room but because of staff shortages. Your leg is bad enough to land you in a hospital. Same story there: there are simply not enough hands to give you the service you need. There are not enough workers to keep you clean, and sometimes you have to
wait seemingly forever to use the toilet.

This depressing scenario is not unrealistic. All demographic forecasts point in the same direction. In the future, there will be more old people and fewer young ones to take care of them. Old people will live longer, and they will need help. But the labour supply will go down since a large portion of the current labour force will retire and the number of young people is low.

Danish Regions, involved in the management of the Danish healthcare sector, is one of the many actors that are concerned about the future of the Nordic countries.

‘We haven’t really quantified the expected labour shortage, but we do know that a lot of workers will retire soon and that the number of people entering the labour market will be relatively low,’ says Ole Lund Jensen, administrative director at Danish Regions.

The Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions estimates that Swedish schools and preschools will need to recruit 100 000 new workers from 2010 to 2019. The numbers for social services and the healthcare sector are 100 000 and 80 000, respectively.

‘To add even more complexity, fewer people are choosing nursing and other key occupations as a career. So there is clearly a risk that employers will have problems recruiting qualified labour,’ says Anna-Karin Wall from the Swedish Municipal Workers’ Union.

A central feature of the welfare-related sectors expecting future labour shortages is that they are all female-dominated and have large shares of part-time workers. In Denmark, statistics from the national wage statistics office of Danish local authorities, Fælleskommunale Løndatakontor, show that in 2010, one-third of all women in the public sector worked part time. This led Danish Regions to proclaim that the predicted shortage of nurses in Denmark could be resolved if only women could work more hours.

‘Our standpoint hasn’t changed,’ says Lund Jensen.

So, the large number of part-time workers in the welfare sectors carries a tremendous potential. In response, Danish Regions has recently launched a full-time policy where all recruitments in the Danish regions must be for full-time positions.

This is a promising strategy, according to Swedish statistics.

‘If all workers in Swedish local and county governments started working full-time, it would correspond to 150 000 full-time positions. So there is a huge potential there,’ says Wall.

Right to Full-Time Work

But all of this may be easier said than done. Many employers are not interested in replacing the many part-time positions with full-time dittos. They often do not think in terms of labour hours, but instead in terms of number of workers, Helle Holt explains. She is a senior researcher at the Danish National Centre for Social Research and a member of the reference group for the NIKK project Part-Time Work in the Nordic Region.

‘Employers in retailing and the health and social care sector share an important characteristic: They have a high proportion of female workers and prefer to hire many part-time workers rather than fewer full-time workers, since it gives them more flexibility when drawing up work schedules,’ she says.

This approach has been referred to as a ‘part-time culture’ in the Nordic debate. It is precisely this culture that Danish Regions wants to put an end to by mandating full-time positions. The culture is not unique to Denmark, says Sven Fernlund Skagerud, project leader in Falun Municipality in Sweden.

He has spent many years helping Swedish municipalities convert part-time jobs to full-time positions.

‘The two main challenges are leadership and cultural change: leadership because the transition is substantial and complex, cultural change because the transition is hard to accept,’ he says.

In a Nordic context, Sweden has been a pioneer in this area. The right to full-time work has been on the political agenda since the 1990s, and the first Swedish municipality introduced the full-time principle for some of its employees around the same time.

Later, in 2002, Bollnäs became the first municipality to apply the principle on all its workers – with the assistance of the national government at the time, which offered financial support to both municipal and private employers that were willing to adopt the full-time model, says Fernlund Skagerud.

Several Swedish municipalities have followed suit in subsequent years – by converting to full-time work across the board or for select positions, primarily in elderly and disability care. And the experiences so far have been positive. In fact, evaluations of municipalities that have made the transition have identified benefits in terms of both quality and finances.

‘Some municipalities point to other positive effects as well, such as higher overall worker satisfaction and better continuity in the services provided,’ says Skagerud.

He believes that the high level of welfare in the Nordic countries cannot be maintained without a transition from part-time to full-time work.

’Many people and employers are hesitant on financial grounds. Instead they should ask whether we can afford not doing it. Solving municipal tasks must be made attractive, and introducing a full-time culture is part of this ambition.’

Goodbye to Part-Time

If tomorrow’s welfare society will depend on women working full-time, there is some work to be done. With the exception of Finland, the Nordic countries are topping the European ranking when it comes to female part-time work, according to the EU’s most recent Labour Force Survey.

Photo: Colourbox
Photo: Colourbox

Norway and Iceland are not included in the survey, but figures from NIKK’s report Part-Time Work, Gender and Economic Distribution in the Nordic Countries show that Norway’s share of women working part time is larger than the European average of 31.7 per cent, whereas Iceland is almost five percent below the average. Thus, if the potential of female workers is to be utilised fully, the Nordic countries have some work ahead in a European perspective. Initiatives such as those by Danish Regions and Swedish municipalities are important but will not suffice, says Anna-Karin Wall.

‘We need to do away with the part-time norm once and for all,’ she says.

‘The fact that part-time work is more common in female-dominated sectors probably has to do with women’s paid work having been considered a complement to men’s work rather than as an independent source of income significant enough to support a family. This structure lives on. Women make less money than men just about everywhere in the labour market, despite often having more education.’

But will changing the part-time culture be enough? It is not that simple, says Helle Holt. One reason is that the labour market conditions vary across the Nordic region. For example, Denmark is experiencing an economic crisis and high unemployment among both women and men. As a result, both genders are showing rising rates of part-time work.

‘In contrast, Norwegian employers have problems finding enough workers. This important difference of course affects the part-time debate in the two countries. In Norway it makes sense to discuss whether there are too many part-time jobs, whereas in Denmark nobody dares even suggesting it, since there are hardly any jobs of any type,’ says Holt.

Still, the forecasted scenario is difficult to escape: In a not too distant future, the Nordic welfare societies will experience a troubling labour shortage, economic crisis or not. Some of the required labour resources are already in place but are not taken full advantage of. The costs of this under-utilisation of the labour force have wide-ranging effects on society, says Holt.

‘We know that if women could work as many paid hours as men and also participate in the labour market to the same extent, the increase in labour performed would correspond to 500 000 full-time jobs. This would – if there are enough job opportunities – significantly increase tax revenues at the local, regional and national levels.’

Updated 11 February 2021