While workers all over the country were out celebrating Labour Day on Friday, alarming numbers of young Norwegians don’t work at all. New statistics show that in the last five years, there’s been a 50 percent increase in the numbers of Norwegians on disability who are under the age of 35.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week that the numbers of young Norwegians on disability have never been higher. Researchers are worried. While the numbers of older Norwegians on disability have been stable for many years, more and more young Norwegians have been officially declared unfit for work: 4,555 more in the past three years alone, to be exact.
Huge cost to society
“The development is worrisome,” Simen Markussen, a researcher at Frischsenteret in Oslo told Aftenposten. “Very few people on disability ever go back to work. For most of them, it’s over.”
Kjell Vaage, a professor of economics at the University of Bergen, is also sounding the alarm. He noted that the introduction of time-limited disability payments in 2004, and the removal of limits on disability pay in 2010, can explain a reduction in the numbers of youth on disabiity in the mid-2000s and the increase in the past five years.
“But even if we adjust for such factors, there’s been underlying growth in the amount of youth on disability,” Vaage told Aftenposten. “It’s extremely worrisome.”
The cost to Norwegian society alone is alarming: NAV, the state welfare agency, has numbers showing that a 25-year-old who goes on disability and never returns to the workforce will likely receive NOK 9.9 million (USD 1.3 million) in disability benefits over the course of his life. A 55-year-old going on disability will receive around NOK 2.7 million.
‘Tip of the iceberg’
“Even if there are fewer on disability, it’s difficult to see any positive development when steadily more youth are disabled,” Markussen said. “For one thing, it’s much more costly for society. In addition, it weakens the quality of life for those who live on low welfare payments while their friends get an education, take a job and receive income.”
Vaage worries that the disability figures reflect high school dropout rates and a new “lonesome free time,” in which the rise of computer games, the Internet and expanded TV programming makes it easier for young people to isolate themselves at home. Meawhile, Vaage notes, “just outside out borders is a long line of healthy young people willing and ready to work, who are much more attractive to an employer than marginalized Norwegian youth. So then even more young Norwegians fall out of the labour market. The increase in those on disability is the tip of the iceberg.”
Mental health problems
Reasons for the increase in Norwegian youth on disability are mixed, and a matter of discussion. “It’s not because it’s easier to qualify for disability than before,” claimed Yngvar Åsholt of NAV. “There have been no dramatic changes in qualifications.”
He thinks a major reason is “more openness” around psychiatric ailments, and that diagnoses have changed over time. “Earlier it was quite seldom that people received diagnoses like ADHD or personality disorders,” Åsholt told Aftenposten. “Now we’re getting far more of these diagnoses, and that can be why more people, especially young people, are eligible for disability.”
Mental health problems dominate diagnoses for the vast majority of those on disability in Norway who are under 35. “We see a lot of quite heavy psychiatric diagnoses,” Åsholt said. “These aren’t people who are trying to go on disability because they don’t want to work.”
Others point to a far more demanding workplace, with constant technological development, tough competition, a need for formal education and high productivity. Not everyone meets the demands of employers, leading to feelings of inadequacy.
Addressing the problem
National employers’ organization NHO has a list of proposals aimed at lowering the disability figures in Norway. NHO urges obligatory day care for pre-schoolers, to strengthen basic skills, and alternative high school programs to lower the drop-out rate. NAV needs to follow up young clients better, school health programs should be improved and NHO urges more cooperation between primary care physicians and psychologists when young people are put on sick leave with mental health problems.
NAV and other community social welfare programs are also testing out new methods of getting young people on disability back to work through tailor-made projects that match their abilities with jobs, mostly on a part-time basis. It’s working in the case of a 33-year-old from Hadeland who now works three days a week sorting and packing coffee beans at a high-end coffee shop n Oslo.
“Just having a real job with responsibility and normal paychecks has meant everything to me,” he told Aftenposten. “Without this chance, I’d be living the same old sad life. I felt like a loser.” Now his anxiety has eased: “No one wants to go on disability. I think the best way to stop the growth of it is to tackle the trouble early. But not everyone has been as lucky as me.”