The current ageing population means that in another thirty years, the working population will have dropped by ten to fifteen percent. The Labour Force Participation Committee has calculated that by 2040, there will be a shortage of 700,000 workers. ‘Employers are underestimating the problem’, claims Jouke van Dijk, Professor of Regional Labour Market Analysis. ‘It is time we put the ageing population back on the agenda.’
Although the problem was signalled a long time ago, the economic crisis has recently pushed it aside. There is little time to think about the future while we focus on solving more immediate problems. ‘Quite rightly’, says Van Dijk. ‘But we now need to reinstate our sense of urgency. The solution to this problem requires an investment from society as a whole.’
‘Companies only tend to think two years ahead,’ according to Van Dijk. ‘But proper training takes three to four years. So even if companies manage to find potential employees, training still takes too long. In addition, employers assume that people will stay in their jobs. Shortages on the labour market actually make staff less loyal. Labour becomes more expensive, putting the smaller businesses in a more vulnerable position.’
According to Van Dijk, the best way to contain the problem is to look for solutions in several directions. ‘A plan with various options is important. Individual companies can train people or stimulate employees to work more, but they cannot raise the age of retirement. This is a job for government and trade unions.’
Van Dijk: ‘The most obvious solution is to cut back on part-time positions. The Netherlands has more part-time staff than any other country. A staggering 75 percent of women and 25 percent of men work part-time! Longer working hours is a relatively simple way of offsetting the shortage of workers.’ But Van Dijk does not think that this will be chosen as the ultimate solution. ‘Dutch employees are quite happy with the number of hours they work, partly because it is “not done” to send your child to a crèche five days a week.’
‘Of course we could simply opt for less economic growth, which would require fewer people’, according to Van Dijk. ‘Another solution would be to increase labour productivity. Businesses become more creative when there are shortages in the labour market. It pays to invest in better machines, for example.’
But people sitting at home on various benefits could also do their bit. ‘We are talking about almost a million people. Some of them are obviously unable to work, but about a third of them could certainly take a more active part. They would, however, need plenty of firm encouragement and adequate training.’ Van Dijk thinks that this would result in an extra 300,000 workers. Admitting migrant workers is also among the options.
Finally, working beyond the retirement age is a realistic option in certain professions. ‘These days, we are healthy enough to carry on working’, says Van Dijk. ‘Of course there are some jobs in which you cannot continue into your seventies. Working in a retirement or nursing home, for example, is both physically and mentally tiring. And a surgeon should obviously stop operating at a certain age, before his/her hands start shaking.’
Van Dijk expects that the ageing population will have the greatest impact on the education sector. In fact it could even form a double problem, as education is itself a crucial sector for the economy. ‘A lack of good teachers will pose a huge problem. A quarter of all teachers are already over 55. Assuming we lose twenty percent of teachers to natural wastage over the next ten years, we will soon face huge problems finding replacements. Obviously we cannot use migrant workers in education. And neither can we use lateral-entry teachers with insufficient teaching skills. You can increase productivity in the teaching sector to a certain extent, but there is very clearly a limit.’
Van Dijk: ‘We must face up to the fact that things will have to change. If we fail to act, there is no doubt that the future working population will be poorly trained. And that is a problem that will take many years to set right.’
Jouke van Dijk (1956) is Professor of Regional Labour Market Analysis at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences. He studied economics in Groningen and has been attached to the University since 1981. He gained his PhD in 1986 with a thesis entitled Migration and Labour Market. Van Dijk is an expert in the field of labour market issues and regional economics.
Contact: Prof. Jouke van Dijk, tel. +31 (0)50 363 38 97, e-mail: jouke.van.dijk rug.nl
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