Author: Anders Rosdahl

In this article, the Danish sociologist Anders Rosdahl presents main findings from PIAAC cycle 1. The article presents skills in the Nordic countries in a comparative perspective and focuses on the uneven distribution of skills with regard to education, age and other factors. It also sheds light on adults with low skills and how adult education matches the needs of this group.

Does the background matter?


Results from PIAAC cycle 1 show that the higher the educational level attained, the better the skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving with IT. This relationship stems from the fact that education, especially if it includes academic elements, generally contributes to developing and maintaining basic skills. At the same time, we may expect that education attract those being most motivated and able to acquire high skills. Thus, we may expect that there is a so-called selection effect. Finally, a higher educational level means that one gets access in particular to the parts of the labour market, where skills are used, maintained and developed, which can be a third explanation of the relationship between education and basic skills.


From the age of 16 years to about 30 years (dependent on the skill and country analysed), we can see that increased age means higher skills. From the age of 30 years to the age of 65 years, we see the opposite: increased age leads to a decrease in skills level. Persons aged 55 – 65 years have on average lower skills compared to the age group 16 – 24 years.

The increase in skills from age 16 to 30 is without doubt an age effect. As young people get older, more and more acquire vocational, study oriented, or higher education. The decrease in skills from 30 to 65 years can be due to a generation effect, because younger generations overall have attained higher educational levels compared to older generations. The younger persons also have more experience with IT and computers. At least partly, the decrease for this age group may also be due to an age effect, meaning processes taking place during the individual persons’ life. Biological factors may also play a role. Dementia is an extreme example. The age effect can also have a social component. According to economic theory, the incentive to participate in further education may decrease with the employee’s increasing age – both the incentive for the employee and that of the employer. Society and the labour market often work in such a way that the possibilities and the motivation to learn and maintain skills decreases as one gets older. Also, when focusing on each level of education separately, we can generally observe that basic skills decrease with increasing age. This may indicate that the lower skills level among the older age groups is probably not only due to a generation effect.

Immigration status

According to PIAAC, immigrants, defined as persons born abroad, account for 4.8 per cent of the 16-65-year-old population in Finland, 10.8 per cent in Denmark; 12.4 per cent in Norway and 16.8 per cent in Sweden. In these countries, the immigrants took the cognitive tests in the language of the host country. According to PIAAC, immigrants have lower skills compared to non-immigrants in all Nordic countries. The difference in literacy skills is about 40 – 50 score points, which is considerable.

The low educational attainment level among many non-Western immigrants explains only partly the low skills level. Immigrants also have lower skills compared to non-immigrants when we control for differences in educational attainment. This means that other factors, including length of stay in the country, contribute to explaining the variations in skills among immigrants.


In addition to education, age and immigration status, several other factors contribute to explaining variations in skills, such as gender, occupation and health.

On average, women and men have about the same literacy skills in both Denmark and Finland. In Norway and Sweden, on the other hand, men have on average slightly higher literacy skills than women. The gender differences are more pronounced when it comes to numeracy and problem solving with IT: in all four countries, men have higher skills compared to women in these two areas. The gender differences are smaller in the younger compared to the older age groups. This is consistent with a presumption of increased gender equality the past decades. According to results from PISA, at the age of 15 girls are better than boys in reading (OECD, 2013). This considerable difference according to gender is, however, much smaller, or does not exist, among young participants in PIAAC.


On average, employed persons have higher skills in literacy, numeracy and problem solving with IT compared to unemployed and others without a job (disregarding persons participating in education and training). Employment, especially long-term employment, goes hand in hand with high skills. Being employed implies better learning opportunities and employers prefer persons with high skills. Therefore, high skilled persons have better chances of getting a job and for keeping a job.

Different jobs and positions require different educational and other qualifications. Thus, it is not surprising that basic skills vary considerably between different positions. Persons with unskilled or manual task have on average lower basic skills compared to those with a complex job demanding longer education and competences within administration. The skills level is generally lower in the private sector than in the public sector, where the educational level on average is highest.


PIAAC-respondents were asked to rate their health on a 5-level scale from “excellent” to “poor”. There is a clear relationship between self-reported health and skills in all three skills areas. Good health and high skills go hand in hand. Poor health can reduce the ability to do well in cognitive tests and low literacy skills may imply that the ability to understand recommendations regarding health, lifestyle and working environment, is reduced.

All in all, PIAAC shows that developing and maintaining basic skills are a result of complex processes taking place at different times during adult life. The general patterns in the distributions of basic skills in the population resemble each other in the Nordic countries. High (low) skills tend to be associated with being in a favourable (unfavourable) situation regarding education, attachment to the labour market and many other factors relevant to the quality of adult life.

About the author

Anders Rosdahl, sociologist, University of Copenhagen, 1974. He has been head of research at VIVE, the Danish centre for social science research, 1987-2017. Today he is emeritus. He has written more than 70 books and articles about labour market and education, including adult learning. He was the Danish national project manager for PIAAC cycle 1 from 2009 to 2014, participant in several Nordic PIAAC-networks, including the Nordic PIAAC network that published the Nordic PIAAC report ”Adult Skills in the Nordic Region” in 2015. The three articles are based on this report.

OECD (2013). OECD Skills Outlook 2013: first results from the Survey of Adult Skills. OECD Publishing.

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