Social partners: out with early exit - in with lifelong learning and career development?


This was what we wanted to find out in a survey by the NVL’s network Older workers in the Nordic countries (OWN), targeted to the confederations in the Nordic Countries. In a situation where the social partners were heavily involved in the search for solutions for the challenge of the ageing workforce, their approach to lifelong learning as such was intense, yet at the same time very loosely grounded when it came to their oldest members. Consequently, OWN aimed at collecting systematic knowledge on the extent the social partners have developed policies and outlined strategies, which explicitly address the demographic change and promote opportunities for lifelong learning and career development among their senior members (50+).

Explicit policies by social partners – a serious concern for development opportunities?

Our point of departure was that if the social partners, indeed, were serious about developing opportunities for career development and extension for their senior members, this certainly would be the case in the Nordic Countries. The assumption was built on several facts. Firstly, the workforce in the Nordic countries tend to be highly organized – especially the older workers – and much more so than elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Secondly, in most cases the activity rates in the labour markets also among the seniors are well above the European average. Thirdly, the idea of continuous learning and the need for a meaningful work has been included in the agreements between the working life parties in all the Nordic countries, a fact reflected in highest participation rates in lifelong learning in Europe.
However, not all people are provided with – or take an advantage of – the possibilities to continue learning relevant to their career development. Indeed, the fact remains that also in the Nordic Countries older workers’ participation rates in LLL are clearly lower compared to their younger counterparts. In case of workers in and beyond their 50s in non-managerial positions, a mentality according to which they hope to be able to keep their jobs until to be able to retire with dignity, is much more common than that they would consider flexible learning and career development opportunities in line with younger workers. Yet, we are talking about an age group, which potentially have another 15-20 years to go in working life!
Studies show that trade unions are in “an especially difficult position” regarding lifelong learning, but also that they should develop clearer strategy in response to demographic change, and communicate it to their members.

Good work started but systematic differences between the Nordic countries

It appeared that while some social partners have started very good work, for many the issues of lifelong learning and opportunities for career development for older workers were not on their agenda. We found differences between the unions in most of the aspects and within most countries. Furthermore, the findings revealed rather systematic differences between the Nordic countries. Targeted policy measures regarding the older workers showed to be in place in Denmark and Norway, while this seemed to be least the situation in Sweden. Finland and Iceland have been prioritizing more general lifelong learning policies, without targeting to any particular group.
Several of the social partners pointed out that good personnel and competence policy is good for everybody, regardless of their age. Hence, no need to be explicit regarding any subgroup. While also in Sweden the equal opportunities policies are strong, the low or non-existing focus on older workers’ situation by the social partners suggests that for the time being the country’s situation may be somewhat different among the Nordic countries. However, here we find some correspondence to the situation in Iceland, where the social partners seemed to awake on the issue of senior employees’ development opportunities only as a result of the OWN-study. These two countries already have the highest employment and activity rates for older workers and in Iceland also the LLL rates are high, highest after Denmark.

Targeted or general measures for more opportunities to learning beyond-midlife?

Overall the findings indicate that targeted measures to senior employees provide stronger, and in many cases much needed support to LLL and career development for older workers than general policies. Targeted lifelong learning policy can relate to higher learning participation rates, as in Denmark, than in countries with only general policies. However, as the case of Norway showed, targeted policies do not necessarily “guarantee” opportunities for and participation in learning among seniors. Indeed, their LLL rates in Norway are the lowest of all the Nordic countries, yet their employment rates are high. On another note, also general LLL-policies can provide strong basis for seniors’ career development, as suggested by the high employment rates in Iceland – but not in Finland - provided that other relevant areas of policy and practice are supportive to these.

Lack of assertiveness and systematic follow-up of policies

What we can conclude from the findings is that there is much room for social partners to be more active and assertive, in their policy and practice, to provide support and encouragement to their senior members for learning and development of their job-related knowledge, skills and attitudes. Here the social partners could play a leading role in society if needed, as they have done in regards shortening of working time. Most of the confederations also clearly have room to improve the follow-up of the implementation of their policies in practice, on the grass root level by their member organizations.

The report is available at: