Graduates to learn the hard way in unstable economy

Gymnasium students cap off their secondary school education this week, but the future looks less cheery as they embark on further studies and navigate an uncertain job market

Filled with hopes and ambitions for the future, the latest batch of gymnasium students are celebrating their graduation this week – it’s a moment they should relish, because their prospects look grim from here on in.

These graduates are entering the ‘real world’ at a time when the economy is weak, with 13.8 percent of Danes aged 15-24 unemployed, according to the OECD’s 2011 figures.

Malene Nyborg, the chair of national gymnasium student organisation DGS, told The Copenhagen Post that students are well aware they are graduating during a difficult period.

“I think we have to make sure we don’t expect too much. It’s hard to get a job, and a university degree isn’t a guarantee of a job afterwards,” Nyborg, who completed her exams this week, said. “You could want to become a lawyer but you end up in a grocery store – if you can’t get what you want, that’s a problem.”

A quarter of Danish university graduates are still looking for a job a year after completing their studies and while Nyborg found these figures concerning, she hoped the situation would improve by the time she and her classmates enter the workforce. (For university students, that’ll be in at least four years.)

The gymnasium students who go on to further education might avoid the job squeeze all together, provided they continue studying for long enough.

“We have to stay positive and still take an education and fight for what we want,” Nyborg said.

Jens Boe Nielsen, the chair of headmasters’ association Gymnasieskolernes Rektorforening, said some graduates are focusing on studying in fields where there are jobs. He said these students prioritised a promising career and comfortable lifestyle over doing something they are passionate about.

It's time to party, but the lousy economy is casting a shadow over graduates' futures“About 20 or 30 years ago when people chose what to study, they would choose something they were interested in, but this is not the case anymore,” Nielsen said. “Students are thinking more about the needs of society in the future. They realise that if they want to study something they enjoy, there’s a strong possibility they won’t get a job.”

But Hanne-Grete Lund, the chair of secondary school guidance councillors’ organisation Studievejlederforeningen for Gymnasieskolerne og HF, said it was unwise for students to select a programme that they are not interested in.

“I think some of our students who go to university straight after gymnasium, to study something that will give them a job afterwards, often drop out after a year,” she said.

Lund suggested gymnasium graduates who are unsure about what course to choose should take a year or two off to work, travel or take a bridging course. She added that those who took a break between gymnasium and university were more likely to finish their university programme.

“These students have been at school from the age of five to 18 – it’s good for them to see there’s a world outside these buildings,” she said.

School’s out for summer  Four graduates reveal their hopes and fears for the years ahead

Mads Jakobsen, 18
Selandia CEU
“I plan to go to the University of Copenhagen to study building engineering after the summer holidays. I would really like to get a job in construction after I finish, and if all goes well, I would like to start my own firm or business. Of course, you’re always afraid you won’t get a job after your education, but I hope the world will be different in three-and-a-half years. If you really want a job, you can get it with a combination of hard work and good luck.”

Amanda Brødsgaard, 18
Virum Gymnasium

“I’m applying to study in the University of Copenhagen’s anthropology department and planning to go straight to university after summer. I would like to take the ambassador stream and become an ambassador, preferably in Japan. University feels like a safe environment where I know what’s expected of me. I think it’s scarier to get a job because it’s really tough at the moment. Anthropology takes about six years so I hope after that time it will be much better – I’m really taking a leap of faith here.”

Ida Vinggaard, 18
Virum Gymnasium
“I’m definitely going to university because I really like studying, but I’m not sure what I’ll choose. I’m taking a year off to work and travel. When I choose my course, it will have to be something I’m interested in, and I’ll take the job trouble when it comes. For young graduates, it’s hard to get jobs, but I think the Danish state is aware of it. And I believe that by the time I am finished with my higher education, they will have figured something out.”

Alexandra Bungum, 19
Virum Gymnasium

“I would love to study medicine at the University of Copenhagen. It has been my dream to become a doctor for the past six years. Now I plan to take a year off to work, travel and take supplementary classes (chemistry and maths) to get into medical school. I’ve been trying to find a casual job, but it’s not easy. You hope that after university you can find a job, make money and enjoy what you’re doing at the same time, but I fear finding a combination of all these is hard at the moment.”


Factfile  |  Hats off to you

When gymnasium students graduate, they each wear a cap with different badges and hatbands, depending on the type of study they completed. The caps carry a strict set of rules for students on graduation day:
Classmates sign the inside of the cap
Grade from the final exam is written inside the cap
Secret love notes go underneath the sweatband
Cut a square in the sweatband if you drink a crate of beer in 24 hours
Cut a triangle in the sweatband if you see the sun come up
Cut waves in the sweatband if you skinny-dip with the cap on
Best friend must bite the brim of the cap
Cut the brim off if you get so drunk that you need your stomach pumped
Reattach the brim if you score the nurse

Factfile  |  Colour-me graduated

Graduating students wear caps with a coloured band signifying the type of programme they completed. Here is a list of the most common colours:

Bordeaux red – for students passing the Studentereksamen, a university preparatory programme (three-year)
Light blue – two-year higher preparatory (two-year)
Royal blue – higher commercial (three-year)
Purple – basic vocational (two-year)
Navy blue – higher technical (three-year)
Flags – internationally orientated commercial (three-year)
Black cap – the ‘original’ Scandinavian cap for secondary-school graduates. Now the cap of choice for gymnasium students studying Latin or Greek

Cap insignia also vary depending on the programme. Students not wishing to bear a cap with the Cross of the Dannebrog can choose a crescent moon, a Star of David or a non-denominational maple leaf.

Factfile  |  Back on the wagon

On graduation day, each class of gymnasium students will don their caps and career around on the back of a truck.


The joy ride begins in the morning and the truck travels around to each of the students’ homes, where the graduates have a drink, and sometimes eat snacks, before moving on to the next house.


Some of the trucks will be decorated with signs. For example: “honk once for a little drink, twice to down a drink, three times for a flash.”


Some students scrawl a tally of how many beers they have drunk on their arm.


Traditionally, if the celebration is in Copenhagen, students might finish dancing around the statue of King Christian V on Kongens Nytorv, but that area is a metro construction site at the moment.

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