Britta Lejon: Changing Societies – Labor Markets for the Future!

Dear friends, first of all I would like to express my gratitude towards the Swedish embassy for organizing a seminar on such an extremely important topic, the challenge to our societies and labor markets. First a short presentation; I am the President of the union Fackförbundet ST, President of NEA (2 million members in 40 countries), Vice president of TCO, former Minister and member of Parliament. ST organizes civil servants and has 92.000 members. The main topics of this conference are: the aging of the labor force, women’s participation and the development of talent and labor migration.

I will come back to that but I will start by giving you an idea of what me and my organization sees as the main challenges for the labor market.

At present we have 24 million unemployed Europeans. The economic crisis and the austerity measures has led to higher unemployment, cuts in wages and pensions etc. Especially the civil servants have in many countries been under attack (Sweden being an exception). The structures for a well-functioning Social dialogue have as an effect of this eroded in many countries. Trust between social partners is gone, trust from people towards politicians are in many countries no longer there. And it is especially the younger generation that has been hit exceptionally hard by the rise in unemployment. The well-educated young adults of Greece, Portugal, Poland etc. move to new countries in order to get a job and a future; sometimes within the EU, to Germany and other countries with lower unemployment, sometimes even further away. It is a symbol of our time that young Europeans travel to former colonies like Angola in order to get a better future. But for those that aren’t as well educated or skilled, the social inequalities and the lack of prospects for the future creates an extremely volatile situation. Desperation and easy solutions presented by racists and extremists attract more and more people.

The responsibility to take Europe out of this dangerous situation lies of course in the hands of the politicians, but we, as social partners, have a responsibility too. 
In order to find long-term solutions for the future we need to understand the way our world is changing.

The power structures in the world are changing. The old world; Europe and USA is losing economic power while the former colonies in India, Latin-America, Africa and the East is gaining economic power and political influence.

The climate-changes and the biggest migration since WW II creates new pressing challenges in our common agenda. They are also very obvious examples of the fact that the big questions of our time cannot be solved by nation states alone.

Many of the changes we experience are, as always, driven by changes in technology. New ways of communication, of production and of distribution give opportunities we never experienced before. Old jobs and skills disappears, but new jobs and skills are born.
Globalization and digitalization are transforming our societies. It changes the labor market! It gives us new opportunities. But it also gives us more problematic questions to tackle. We can already see it. After every economic crisis the unemployment figures rise and stay on a higher level. Yes, sure the new technologies doesn´t only make old jobs and skills obsolete – it also create a lot of new jobs.  But, and it is a big question mark, there seems to be less jobs than before. This is much debated and I don’t know who is right. But what it seems that we can be sure of is that the demands for knowledge and education is higher and will continue to be so.

So, in this rapidly changing world how do we create jobs and a better future for those 24 million unemployed Europeans?

An old lesson that is still accurate is that economic growth is linked to demography. A growing population with a balance between those in the working ages, the young and the old, is crucial. What kind of prospects does Europe have here? Many countries in Europe have a problem with this. The birth rate is not high enough, the EU-28 average is 1,58. That is far from sufficient (2,1). The balance between the old, the retired, and those in the working force could also be better. I would like to quote the Italian Health Minister, Beatrice Lorenzin who recently said; “We are at the threshold where people who die are not being replaced by newborns. That means we are a dying nation.”  In order to change the demography of Europe we do have some choices and solutions. A more gender balanced Europe which creates good possibilities to combine working life with family life would boost the birth rates. Today, many women need to make a choice which they shouldn’t be forced to. When parental leave is short and seen as detrimental to your career, when good child care is difficult to get and expensive, and when attitudes towards women present obstacles for their advancements to higher positions we need to change. We need to create equal opportunities for women and men in order to achieve a higher birth rate.

Additionally, older people can be active in the workforce longer. This is already a trend that we can see in Sweden.

Finally, immigration is, if handled right, a part of the solution for our labor markets and societies.

According to Eurostat EU had last year 626.000 asylum seekers, and a total of 1.7 million immigrants from outside EU (2012).  Germany, France and Sweden take in the most migrants.  80.000/year is at present coming to Sweden. That is a lot, but it is still less than 1 % of our population. Researchers say that we need at least an immigration around 25.000 people/year to avoid a negative birth rate. If we didn’t have immigration, the workforce would be diminishing. The immigrants that arrive in Sweden now are mainly between 20- 40.  Some have very little education, but others are highly skilled and educated. But at present even those with a very high education has to spend years and years waiting for a job in the Swedish Labor market. That is an extraordinary waste as well as being extremely costly.

So, in order to summarize this introduction:

We need to meet the challenges to the labor markets that we are facing with investments in our population, investments in education and life-long-learning, as well as in research and science. We need good competence development opportunities, we need investments in a healthy working environment making it possible for people to continue working even when they get older. We need to welcome our immigrants and give them the possibility to education and jobs.  We need to invest in both gender balanced labor markets and societies.
The way forward for Europe cannot be about more austerity and an abandoned social dialogue. It cannot be about blaming public servants or immigrants or whatever or whoever.  The way forward towards economic growth, jobs, and hopes for a better future must be spelled investing in new possibilities, investing in people. And we need to do these investments both at a national level and in the common, cross-border arenas. This makes it more complicated, especially after the British election, but frankly Cameron is leading his people, and Europe, in the wrong direction. 

And I must add; all historical and present experience, all research, teach us the lesson that a country with a well-functioning, transparent, effective public sector without corruption is one of the most important reasons behind the welfare and prosperity of a nation.  We need to keep that lesson in mind when creating our new cross-border arenas for political decision-making in this new world. No matter if we talk about the EU or something else.

In order to succeed we need to listen to each other, employers to trade unions and vice versa, countries to countries, researchers and industrialists, civil society and politicians. And – we need to listen to those that don’t have a voice – the young unemployed Europeans, and the immigrants who risks their lives. Europe needs them.  We need them.
This is also the reason why initiatives like these are so important. I am sure I will take home some new knowledge and new insights with me after this conference. And for that I am grateful.

Thank You for Your attention!