The Way to Make America Great Again Is to Be More Like Scandinavia
A British politician summed it up perfectly when he said, "If you want the American dream, go to Finland."
Flags from America, Sweden, and Texas flying over IKEA. Photo via Flickr user Matthew Rutledge
When Anu Partanen moved from her native Finland to the United States in 2008, she was looking for the American dream. You know the one: the family, the career, and the idea that if you work hard enough, you could be successful, prosperous, and happy. Plus,Finland is freezing cold and dark in the winter. America, by comparison, seemed flooded with sunshine and opportunity.
What she found instead was a nation battered by the financial collapse and lacking everything that had made life so comfortable in Finland: the five weeks of paid vacation in the summer, the free healthcare, the relative job security. In Finland, she'd been almost stress-free, but here, it seemed like just about everybody was struggling to keep their head above water. A few years after she'd moved to the US, a British politician summed it up perfectly: "If you want the American dream, go to Finland."
Partanen, who is now an American citizen and lives in New York City, argues for America to adopt the "Nordic model" in her new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life (which comes out from Harper Collins today). The book takes stock of education, work, health, and more as they exist in America and in countries like Finland, Sweden, and Norway. In one chapter, she hones in on the work-life balance in both countries and finds that the very thing that we think makes America so great—our innovation, entrepreneurship, and businesses savvy—is actually stifled by policies that force employees to work too hard, too long, and to the point of misery.
We spoke to Partanen about the differences between work in America and in countries like Finland, and why she believes the key to success is in the Nordic model.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: When you moved to the United States, what were some of your first impressions about our approach to work?
Anu Partanen: The United States leads the world in innovation and business, but I think Americans kind of forget that other counties have successful businesses too, despite having a different model. I often hear the same words from American: "Oh, but the Nordic counties have not produced Steve Jobs." My answer to that is the Nordic countries, which are fairly small, have produced an impressive amount: look at Nokia or H&M or Spotify or Skype [all of which were created in Nordic countries].
The other question Americans ask is, "How is it possible [to be successful] when your employees are constantly on vacation and parental leave?" They think nobody ever works [in Nordic countries]. And to me, part of the advantage of the Nordic model is these policies that help people combine work and family.
What kind of policies exactly?
Paid parental leave, for instance, which is long enough to actually allow you to take care of your child. Affordable day care, paid vacation, paid sick days. These are policies all companies have to provide, so that levels the playing field for businesses. Right now, in America, I often hear small businesses say, "Well, if I provide parental leave for my workers, my competitor doesn't have to do it" and they [can't be as productive]. I agree its unfair. I think it would be better if all companies offered these basic services that combine work and family.
Americans often think that because of these policies, everybody just avoids work. But in reality, if you look at the labor force participation rate—which means what part of the working-age population is actually employed—it tends to be a bigger part of the population in Nordic counties than in the US.
So more people are working, overall, in places like Finland and Sweden than in the United States?
Right, and this is clearly because of these policies. They help women work—like affordable day care, which can be a big problem for parents in America, or parental leave, which means parents don't have to [choose between] quitting their jobs if they want to take care of their children or going around in a sort of exhaustive haze when they are up all night with a baby and then trying to function in the office.
Then there's healthcare, which for American companies is a huge expense. Nordic businesses don't have [to pay for employees' healthcare] because healthcare is provided through tax payer funds. So that also gives companies and businesses freedom. It also helps entrepreneurs, because you don't have to worry about how you are going to pay for health insurance for yourself and your family. If you start a business and it fails—and a lot of new companies do fail—then you're not risking your future or your children's future. It gives you some basic security that allows you to then take risks in your work also.
That's interesting. It seems like American companies are becoming increasingly stingy with healthcare benefits. There was a recent study that showed young Americans are more likely to get free snacks from their jobs than they are to get health insurance.
I perfectly understand that companies don't want to offer this service. It's very expensive and it's getting more expensive all the time. We are all moving towards a world where people have less stable jobs—they work as contractors, they work as Uber drivers, they're self-employed—so this sort of development of the global economy really requires us to rethink how we are going to provide this basic service. And health insurance is an extremely important service. So in that sense too, I think it would make much more sense to work a public option to work some form of universal health care. And that, I think, would be more fair to employers of all sizes, especially small employers, because that is a big cost for them. And it would be more fair toward individual employees and entrepreneurs working so that everybody can get the same basic services.
How have these policies in Scandinavia affected the work culture there? Is it really different than American work culture?
There is a huge difference, and I think party it's because Americans rely on their employers so much more than people in the Nordic counties do. Losing your job is such a gigantic deal in America, and that tends to give the employer a lot more power. Work is important to people in Nordic counties, too, but it's not everything.
The other thing is that there's more emphasis on efficiency in the workplace.[Americans like to] work really long hours, where half the time you're just there for show. I think in Nordic counties the idea is more that we will do our best to be productive while we are in the work place, but then it is OK to leave.
There's an example in your book of Supercell, a start-up in Finland, where everyone went home by 5 PM. It's hard to imagine that coexisting with American start-up culture.
Exactly. And that's not to say that if someone has an important deadline coming up that people don't work around the clock. But the general idea is that you should have work hours and life hours. And you should work when you are at work and enjoy your time off and that is what everybody does—including the people in managerial positions.
Is there a difference in how we view success?
That is really interesting. Americans love their families. I mean, obviously Nordic [people] love their families too, but in the US I was shocked how much talk there is about family values. It's a part of the American identity—that people love their families, they want to spend time with their families, and part of what is considered success is that you have children, you can provide for your children, and your children get a better education than you do. So a lot of the American dream is tied to your family and to your loved ones and not just making a lot of money. However, it is so hard to both have a family and a successful career in America. It just kind of forces people to really focus on working really long hours and making a lot of money so that you can provide for your family and then you never get clear of that because you are always working. The lack of basic services works against that idea of successful family life that Americans really want.
In the Nordic counties, the notion of the success is in some ways very similar: People don't necessarily dream of being incredibly powerful, they just want to be successful in their work life and make good money and have a family. The Nordic countries just make it easier, whereas in the US today, it feels like you have to be a super achiever to be able to feel successful. And even then, you're probably wondering, 'Why am I not happier?'
The other part of the "American dream" is upward mobility—that anyone can make it in America, if you work hard. Does the research support that reality in America?
One study that I discussed in my book looked at men who are in the lowest income bracket—so the people who make the least [money]—and whether their sons can climb to other income brackets, above their fathers. In the United States, forty percent of men who are born into that income bracket stayed in it. They did not climb up. But then in the Nordic counties, only 25 percent of men stayed in it. So more men were able to start making more than their father did or more than their family did in the Nordic countries than in America. So that kind of statistic and talk about what the American notion of success or opportunity is and the Nordic countries definitely provide better than the US does.
It seems like Silicon Valley is closest thing we have to the Nordic model here in the US. There's a big push at companies like Facebook and Google to provide generous parental leave; Netflix has unlimited vacation days. Do you think we could replicate the Nordic model from within the private sector?
I think it can certainly lead the way. These companies offer these services because they think it's the right thing to do, but also because they think its a good thing to attract and retain workers. If the most admired companies in America are doing this, why do we think it wouldn't work for anyone else?
Now, there are so many other industries—think of grocery stores, or jobs that don't pay well—and for these employers, it's going to be harder to institute these policies on their own. They don't have to compete over workers; [their workers are] more expendable as opposed to these tech companies where employees have to have very specific skills. I think Americans would prefer to approach questions like these by getting companies to do this voluntarily, but I don't actually think that that would then support bringing all of these policies to all industries unless there is some sort of public funding.
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