Here's Why Viking Economics Are Superior
The following is adapted from the new book Viking Economics by George Lakey (Melville House, 2016):
A few years ago, I sat in a living room in the Norwegian town of Skien, surrounded by relatives. As a young man I’d married an international student from Norway, and her family had adopted me. Whenever I was back in Norway, we’d get together for pastries and coffee. I’d lived in Oslo more than half a century ago, but I’d come back many times. Gathered in the living room that day were relatives of a variety of ages and occupations: teacher, industrial worker, owner of a garden center, social worker, organic farmer, middle manager in a business.
As we talked about this and that, one of the cousins mentioned that she’d just heard about the results of an experiment for shortening the workweek. She told us with some excitement that the study measured people’s productivity when their workweek was shortened from forty to thirty hours. The researchers found that the workers got more work done.
I watched the ripple of satisfaction around the room as the relatives started speculating about whether a reduction in hours could work in their jobs, too. They wondered about the implications of having more time off with the same total paycheck. On average, Norwegians work only 1,400 hours per year—the lowest in Europe—and are famous for their high productivity. I was struck by the quiet confidence everyone in the room seemed to have that as soon as the research was done, their employers would change policies easily.
“What about you, George?” a young woman asked. I had been quiet throughout the conversation. “What’s the trend in hours worked in the States?”
“Actually,” I said, “the trend with us is in the opposite direction. Overall, people with jobs work longer hours than before.”
She was visibly surprised. “Does that mean that you take the time off in other ways, like super-long vacations? Here in Norway the national law is a month paid vacation for all, but some occupations get more because they are more stressful.”
“Well . . .” I paused, trying to ensure my Norwegian vocabulary was up to the task of conveying disappointing news. “In the United States, we don’t tend to have long paid vacations. Lots of people have two weeks, lots have one week, and some don’t have any paid vacation.”
The room became very still. I could sense my interlocutor trying to imagine living under such conditions. After a while, she chanced another question, clearly wanting to allow for cultural differences.
“Maybe people in your country don’t want to have free time to enjoy your families, and go hiking and do recreation, and have hobbies?”
I was slow to respond. “Yes, we do want those things, just as you do. It’s just that, well, we don’t know that we can have them.”
Hence my book. I wrote Viking Economics because so many of my fellow Americans experience the stark impact of our economic challenges every single day, yet feel socially powerless about solving them. One reason we’ve gotten stuck is that we’ve forgotten how successful Americans have been when we’ve formed social movements. Everything from child-labor laws to Social Security, after all, is a result of popular action.
But it’s not just our own history we have to look toward. Too often, we’re unaware of other societies that have tackled similar economic problems and taken giant strides forward; without that knowledge, it’s hard to visualize the big changes we need to make.
Equality is probably the most potent example of this gap. Most Americans are deeply aware of the wealth gap—even Republican politicians are starting to talk about it.
Yet even as the wealth gap continues to grow, very few politicians seem to know what to do about it. Fortunately, bits of news are seeping into our country from the northwestern periphery of Europe. More Americans have now heard that over there, they have free higher education, robust support for families, a healthy work/life balance, active response to climate change, and an abundance of high-paying jobs for young and old alike. Almost no one connects the dots, however, to realize that these positives represent an egalitarian structure. Economists call the set of connections “the Nordic model.”
Creating Work/Life Balance
It turns out that the Nordic model assumes a rested worker is a productive worker.
By the 1960s, a five-day week became the Norwegian norm. But when you factor in the paid vacations and holidays, the comparison is startling: according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) 2012 data, the average number of hours a person works in a year in Norway is 1,418. In Denmark, the number is 1,430; in Sweden, 1,621; in Iceland, 1,706; and in the United States, 1,790.
Another OECD study showed Norwegian workers producing, compared with the United States, 27.8 percent more per hour for the hours worked.
Sweden is not satisfied with its work/life balance and set up an experiment with the six-hour day in the city of Gothenburg. City workers will be divided randomly, with half continuing the eight-hour day and the other half engaging in the experiment. The goal is to gain higher productivity per hour and have fewer sick days. The researchers are encouraged by positive results from Toyota’s similar experiment in its Gothenburg factory.
Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte told Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air that Danish women felt social pressure to leave the office punctually at the end of the day rather than spend extra time “finishing up” at their desks. They did not want to give their colleagues and supervisors the impression that they could not do their job fully within the framework of regular hours.
By law, Norwegians are entitled to twenty-five vacation days every year, as are the Danes. Working hours may not exceed nine hours per day or forty hours per week. Flextime is increasing; employees can choose their own work hours as long as they are at the worksite in the middle of the day for meetings and common tasks.
Economist Sam Bowles at the University of Massachusetts studied working hours in all the OECD countries and found that more unequal countries tend to have longer working hours. He checked the trends over time and discovered that, in those countries where inequality changes over time, the working hours change in tandem. People in more unequal countries do the equivalent of two or three months’ extra work per year.
Does all this emphasis on work/life balance mean that the Nordic peoples shirk work? On the contrary, more people there work than in comparable countries. The numbers reported by the Better Life Index show that the following percentages of people aged fifteen to sixty-four have paid jobs: Denmark, seventy-three; Sweden, seventy-four; Norway, seventy-five; and Iceland, seventy-nine. The OECD average is 66 percent. In the UK, it is 70 percent, and in the United States, 67.
Just as there is no necessary contradiction between equality and freedom, there may be no contradiction between work and life. The design-crazy Scandinavians, when encountering apparent tensions, prefer rolling up their sleeves to shrugging their shoulders. Their advanced democracies make design solutions possible.
Tackling Gender Roles
Seen in that light, an obvious design flaw in the patriarchal system inherited by most economies is the gendered division of labor within the family.
Norway was the first country in the world to establish a scheme that incentivizes dads to take more responsibility for their children. A paid leave of absence from the job is set aside for the father; if he doesn’t take it, the couple can’t transfer that time to the mom. The policy is working: by 2008, 90 percent of fathers were using their quota, and 16.5 percent were extending their leave beyond the reserved amount.
In Denmark, the current system is this: families receive a total of 52 weeks of parental leave, with full pay. Mothers take eighteen weeks and fathers get a dedicated two weeks. If they don’t use it, the couple loses it. The rest of the paid time off is up to the family to use as they wish, again building in the freedom for couples to decide what works best for them.
Dads can’t breast-feed, and most Norwegians do recognize the health and other benefits of breast-feeding their children. In Norway, a new mother at her job has the right to two hours of break time each day to permit breast-feeding.
If the dad takes care of the baby at home when the mom resumes her job, he can bring the baby to the workplace for feedings. For moms who combine job with baby, many workplaces have day care for their employees’ children on-site. If a child is primarily being taking care of by a job-holding dad, he has an equal right to access the day care on-site.
Affordable, publicly financed day-care institutions are available if a parent’s worksite doesn’t have one. Either parent has the right to stay at home with sick children at least twenty days per year.
Many heterosexual couples aren’t choosing marriage these days, but that’s not stopping them from having children; Norwegian fertility is high. In 2005, unmarried moms living with their partners accounted for 42 percent of all births. Single mothers accounted for 10 percent.
When I heard Schulte’s interview on NPR describing the office pressure to leave work after eight hours, I remembered the Wall Street firms who are reportedly pressuring young analysts to work fifteen hours a day. A Penn professor published a study finding that people at two investment banks spent up to 120 hours per week on the job. Goldman Sachs, New York economics writer James Surowiecki wrote, recently broke ranks by announcing that analysts shouldn’t work more than 70 to 75 hours per week!
In the United States, neither women nor men are able to advance in competitive workplaces like large law firms and academia and still strike a sane work/life balance. I understand the passion that can drive some individuals to clock incredible hours to finish that painting or bring in the harvest or heal the refugee children. What I respect is the choosing, rather than a workplace pressure that takes away employees’ freedom to create meaningful lives on their own, individual terms. This is one of the starkest contrasts I have found in exploring the Nordic model: the extraordinary lack of freedom available to individuals in the United States to place work in the perspective that makes sense to them.