Young people who drop out first and foremost need an adult who sees them
Nearly one in ten young people in Norway is both unemployed and not pursuing an education. A recent review of the literature suggests that the solution to help this population reconnect to society may be simpler than we thought.
“The media and public debate can give the impression that Norwegian young people are practically rushing headlong into social exclusion and applying for social benefits,” said Tonje Fyhn during the launch of the report "".
But that doesn’t quite correspond to reality, according to the report that was presented during this year’s Arendal Week, an annual August festival that addresses the big questions of today and tomorrow.
Fyhn and colleagues at NORCE – on assignment for the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities (KS) – have taken a closer look at the research that has been done.
KS wants to find out what has gone wrong and what can be done better at the local level going forward. Are there systemic errors that the municipalities can learn from to reintegrate this population into society?
Surprising amount of research
There has been no shortage of research on this issue in Norway.
“I was actually quite surprised at how much research has been published. We ended up going through almost 150 research reports from the beginning of the 1990s until today,” says Fyhn.
Nor has there been any shortage of measures taken. But it’s difficult to identify their impacts and learn anything from them, according to the researcher.
More vulnerable than European youth
Attention to the issue in Norway has not been lacking.
But compared to other OECD countries, Norway’s percentage of societal dropouts has been relatively low.
The challenge is that young Norwegian women and men who drop out are in a more vulnerable position than their peers in Europe.
Norwegian youth are nine times more likely to report poorer health and six times more likely to report depression.
A greater number of Norwegian youth also receive health-related benefits.
Norway’s youth has the greatest number of inactive individuals, with as many as seven out of ten in this category who do not apply for school or employment.
Why do Norwegian youth fall so hard?
Researchers do not have a good answer as to why Norwegian young people are more vulnerable than their European peers.
They also do not know if youth have become sicker than they were before.
“We’re seeing that more people are now being diagnosed with mental illness. This could be because we now have better tools for diagnosis or because we have a lower threshold for making diagnoses.
Fyhn believes that as mental health issues have been generalized, some of the stigma associated with these diseases has been removed. But the downside to this is that we might diagnose issues that are actually normal, she says.
The fact that a lot of Norwegian young people receive health-related benefits compared with young people elsewhere in Europe, might just mean that the social services are better in Norway, Fyhn says.
“But we don’t really have a good answer for this.”
Who drops out?
The researchers at NORCE have systematically reviewed the approximately 150 research reports. They were interested in finding out what the research says about who these young people are.
The researchers found some characteristic traits.
The socio-economic status of many disconnected youth is low. This means that they often come from families where the parents have little education and low income. The families are also often impacted by divorce and relocation.
Young people with a minority background are overrepresented among disconnected youth.
“But when the researchers adjust for the parents' level of education, this connection disappears,” Fyhn says.
Children and young people who have a child welfare history are less likely to finish school or maintain employment.
Other factors that matter are long-term somatic illness and poor mental health.
Other factors appearing remarkably often in the research reports are the youth’s exposure to bullying, neglect, loneliness at school and poor follow-up from teachers.
What do youth themselves say?
In several of the studies, young people have spoken out. The researchers were thus able to gain insight into youths’ own understanding of why they became disconnected from school or work.
The youths’ confirm the report’s findings of absent adults, neglect, bullying, low self-esteem and having to cope with crisis.
“The young people who’ve received disability benefits have in effect been told in black and white that society has no need for them. It can be extremely tough to take in this message,” says Fyhn.
How to get them back?
Researchers have also been curious about what actually enables some young people to reconnect with society.
“Often there’s one adult who sees the young person, someone who has time and is available for them,” Fyhn says.
She believes this is important information for people in the system who want to help youth.
“When young people reconnect, it’s usually because of one or more adults that they’ve found good chemistry with who have been present for them.”
The researchers also found that it is important for the agencies that support youth to talk to each other.
System emphasizes cutting-edge expertise
Ottar Ness is a professor at NTNU’s Department of Education and Lifelong Learning. He believes that this summary of knowledge is very important for finding a better way forward.
“Young people are often classified as discouraged and resigned. They’ve completely stopped looking for work because they feel there are no opportunities for them,” Ness says.
He thinks this report shows how important the relational challenges are.
“The fact that our relationships are crucial for our health and quality of life is nothing new. We’ve known this for a long time. What’s more surprising is that we as a society haven’t used this knowledge when developing services and policies,” he says.
“Expertise on relationships may have become a blind spot in a support system that emphasizes cutting-edge expertise in most professions. In addition, administrative documentation and routines might be stealing a lot of the time staff have to establish good relationships,” says Ness.
Good relationships also seem to be a key to providing helpful follow-up to these young people. He believes this should be emphasized in further research and in the development of future measures.
“We know from research that people who do not feel that they are valued in society either get angry or sick.”
“We know from research that people who do not feel that they are valued in society either get angry or sick,” Ness says.
Plenty of measures, but not much to learn from them
A number of local initiatives have been taken and numerous national reforms implemented to help this group of young people back into society. These measures have also been extensively researched.
Unfortunately, says Fyhn, she finds she can’t learn much from them.
"Good intentions systematically get beached due to poor implementation," she says.
The measures have been of limited duration and very local. They have been tried out in a municipality or in a county for short periods. And research is often started too early, so that many of the conclusions turn out to be “We don’t know enough about this yet.”
In addition, the projects are not set up to evaluate their impact.
“Maybe it's about not building enough fundamental principles into the measures. In my view, researchers should be able to explain why they’ve chosen to implement a measure in exactly this way, and the measures should have a logical connection. Unfortunately, these elements are almost completely absent in the measures we studied in this report,” Fyhn says.
Translated by Ingrid P. Nuse
Reference: Tonje Fyhn, Rebecca Lynn Radlick and Vigdis Sveinsdottir. “Youth who are not in employment, education or training (NEET),” Report 2-2021, NORCE Helse.