Is Scandinavia Better to Live in Than the USA?
A comparison of the benefits and disadvantages of living in a Scandinavian country compared to the United States of America.
About 20 years ago, I moved from Norway to the US with great expectations planning to settle there. I spent a year in the US before deciding it was not for me. Based on that experience and living and traveling in other countries, here is my take on this question.
It depends on you and your values and preferences. A lot comes down to the specific town you settle in and your talents. Every country will offer quite different experiences depending on the particular region you settle in. Still, we can make some generalizations.
The US is a country of extremes in almost every possible area. They have the worst poverty problems and the wealthiest people. You got the worst schools and the best. The fattest and the healthiest. You will find the dumbest people and the smartest people. American society is configured to amplify every little difference that may exist between people.
Scandinavia is the complete opposite. While Americans dream of success — making it big and getting rich — Scandinavian society is much more focused on perfecting the average life. Scandinavians tend to focus policies and practices heavily on erasing extreme differences and pulling everybody towards the middle.
This causes American and Scandinavian society to have some really stark differences. American society is really optimized for material wealth and consumerism. If you are of above average talent, then you can expect to make more money in the US, live in a bigger house, drive a fancier car, have more selection in the store you shop at, etc.
To clarify the difference, I thought I should make a caricature of American and Scandinavian life. While a generalization will never be entirely true, it will usually offer some key insights.
Your American Life
You live in a big house, with a big yard in a picture perfect neighborhood made up mostly of other successful people. You work long hours everyday, about 10 hours because in America slackers are not tolerated and not putting in the hours means you are not taking your job serious. You get 2–3 weeks vacation a year and your boss will have a heart attack if you ever go away for more than 1 week at a stretch.
You drive about 1.5 to 2 hours each day because American commutes are long. However, you have a really fancy car that almost makes it worth it. You have a swimming pool in your back yard, a BBQ, etc. In the weekends you might host BBQ parties with neighbors and hang out by the pool.
You don’t see all that much to your kids, but you try to make up for it by sending them to half a dozen “enrichment” activities. You take them them to a water park or amusement park once a month. It is not about the amount of time you spend with your kids, but quality time. America is about working hard and playing hard.
Yard work is easy. You pay cheap Mexican immigrant workers to take care of it. Or they can fix or install things in your house for cheap. You go out to eat most of the week because there are plenty of choices and it is cheap. You don’t have much time for hobbies or recreation because you are just too worn out when you get home after long days and work and your commute.
On the positive side, you can pick a wide variety of geographic areas and climate regions that the poor Scandinavians don’t have as an option. Places with more sun and warm days. Scandinavia is about as far north as Alaska and hence pretty dark in the winter. In the US you get brighter and sunnier days.
But you have some problems that the Scandinavian version of yourself doesn’t have to deal with. You spend a lot of time investigating the best health care plans and college saving schemes. You may have a pretty good insurance plan at your current work, but you are worried your job isn’t secure. Your work may not have been stellar these last weeks. The boss isn’t thrilled. There is talk of culling the dead wood. You worry that means you! Maybe you dodged a bullet this year by working extra hard, but what about next year?
On the other hand, with some extra hard work you could advance to a new fancy position with a corner office, bigger paycheck and more perks!
Your Scandinavian Life
You live in a modest house. Forget about the swimming pool. Even if you have a pretty good job, you don’t have it. You are at work 8 hours every day. Sometimes you leave worker earlier to pick up your kids. The kindergarten/preschool doesn’t hold them for a long time, and your wife, like almost all other Scandinavian wives, has a full-time job. You are expected to take part in the child raising. No worries, though — your boss thinks family and kids are really important and doesn’t mind you leaving a bit early. Your commute is likely less than an hour each day. People tend to live closer to work in Scandinavia. In fact, you may be biking to work rather than driving. Or maybe you take a train or subway.
With shorter work days, you actually spend a lot of time with your kids. You spend a bunch of time building Lego with them, riding sleds, kicking soccer balls, playing hide and seek or whatever. There will be some activities, but probably not as many as in your American life. Most likely they do soccer training in the summer and skiing in the winter. Scandinavians value unorganized activities more and think being bored and doing nothing is actually a healthy thing. Kids should learn to put themselves into activity and maybe spend some of that time being bored while reflecting on life.
While the American has less time and goes to more paid activities like a water park, the Scandinavian version of you likely does more local activities. The local neighborhood has more public areas, parks, playgrounds, and maybe even hiking areas.
There is a big chance you have a boat at the marina, a cabin in the mountains or a summer house. It depends on what kind of Scandinavian you are. Norwegians frequently have cabins in the mountains. It may even be nicer than their regular house.
On sunny Fridays in the winter months, you frequently drive home early to catch a weekend in the mountains with the rest of your family. That is is fine. Your boss does the same thing with her family. In Norway, not utilizing a beautiful day is almost considered a crime. If the weather is great, you drop whatever other plans you had. Time to go out!
Your house is, as I said, nothing like your American house, but you have a lot more vacation. At least 5 weeks plus a bunch of public holidays, and there is usually no problem taking several weeks in a row. Going on vacation to Spain, Thailand or other sunny places a couple of times a year is pretty common. Your buying power may not be exceptional in Scandinavia but everything outside Scandinavia always seems dirt cheap to you.
Your Scandinavian version of yourself simply spends a lot more time on vacation with your family. Europe is, of course, close by with a multitude of countries. Want to do Christmas shopping in London? Or how about a romantic weekend in Paris? Canal boating in Amsterdam? No problem.
Scandinavian Work Life
Work life is quite different. There is not much of a career in the American sense. There are not lots of positions to climb up. Often it feels like there is just two levels: the boss and everybody else. At times you even forget whatever title you are supposed to have. It doesn’t really seem to matter. You have a lot of autonomy and responsibility at work. But on the other hand it never seems to change all that much. You move into a pretty good position from day one but after that there isn’t that much evolution. Your pay never dramatically changes.
The American sense of working hard moving up the corporate ladder and making big money doesn’t quite exist in the same way. If you are extremely ambitious and want recognition for your stellar performance, then you are probably in the wrong part of the world. Your pay is pretty decent but you don’t feel like you hit a home run. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of other people whom you are trying to emulate. Everybody seem to be roughly in the same ballpark in terms of income and success.
This may make it seem like you can be a slacker in Scandinavia, but in Scandinavia you don’t put in effort to get rewards, perks, bonuses, or new fancy titles. You do it due to professional pride and loyalty to your company. A shoddy job reflects badly upon you as a person. You know your company and your boss trust you, and you feel an obligation to not dishonor that trust.
You have no cheap Mexican labour to do yard work and you don’t go out to eat all that frequently. On the other hand, your work days and commutes are fairly short, so you spend more time at home. It means you spend more time cooking, doing yard work, etc. A couple of times a year, you get together with your neighbors for Dugnad. Some of your neighbors could be a fancy lawyer or bank manager. Yeah…in Scandinavia, neighborhoods are more mixed. You could in principle have people in the neighborhood who are some levels above you in the income and status hierarchy. They may complain about Dugnad. Why does a person with a high income have to waste his time on this manual labour? But his friends remind him that this is an important Scandinavian virtue: Solidarity, and doing stuff together regardless of your social stature or income.
Picking up leaves, cutting bushes, etc. at Dugnad kind of sucks. On the other hand, you actually get to finally meet your neighbors and talk to them properly. Scandinavians aren’t big on smalltalk. They get to know each other through shared activities. Even if it is to cut grass or bushes.
In your American life, you actually know all your neighbors because Americans are way more social and chatty. You’ve been over to their houses had some drinks, etc. In Scandinavia you may not know you neighbors as well. You slowly get to know them over time, especially if your kids play with their kids. Or perhaps you are on the same school board, hiking or jogging club.
These two stories are obviously biased as I am a Norwegian. First because my values and perspective will naturally favor Scandinavia. Secondly because it is really a characterization of Norway. Sweden and Denmark have their own unique traits. My characterization of going to a mountain cabin in the weekends will obviously not apply to Denmark, which does not have any mountains.
With these two stories I tried to get across some key aspects of Scandinavian life: It is a less glamorous and down-to-earth life. It has better work-life balance. But if you want to live big and reach the top, while actually feeling you reached the top, then America may be the better place. But be prepared for stress, a lot of hard work, and sacrifices to get there.
Emphasis on Children
What I did not cover that well was the profound difference in how children are valued in Scandinavian society. Norway was the first country in the world to create a “Barneombud” or government watchdog for children. This is an independent professional charged with advocating the rights of children and represent their interests in government. Norway has long had a zero tolerance policy towards corporal punishment of children. This was legislated in 1972. Corporal punishment of children in school was, however, already banned in 1936. Sweden was still the earliest by banning all corporal punishment in 1966.
This is an area that stands in stark contrast to Anglo-Saxon countries. In the US, corporal punishment is still legal and according to statistics, 94% of American parents use corporal punishment.
While people will have different preferences and argument on this issue, I think it is an important area to mention as it is one of the areas where Scandinavia and the US are profoundly different. In general, violence is viewed in far more negative terms in Scandinavia. For instance, the Lego mini-fig was a direct response to what Scandinavians viewed as American toys glorifying war and conflict. America is known for its action figures, and Scandinavian toy makers wanted toys focused more on exploration, cooperation and fantasy rather than conflict.
When I was a child in the 1980s, there was a lot of loud debate in the newspapers about allowing American children's show in TV. These were often regarded as too violent. Admittedly, I loved these shows as a kid. I was hooked on He-Man, Transformers, and GI Joe. My parents, on the other hand, were really unhappy about me wanting these American action figures in the toy store. Of course, today things are different and even Lego seems to have toned down their earlier opposition to any play promoting conflict. But a core rule still remains: Lego does not make sets depicting modern war.
The child emphasis does not stop with the legal aspects but also extends into how cities and neighborhoods are built. They are to a much larger degree organized around the needs of children than North American neighborhoods, as I have discussed previously in my article on Organization of Norwegian Suburbs.
Pre-School and School
The child emphasis is also reflection in preschools and schools. American preschool tends to be more focused on learning concrete skills. They are more ambitious. Norwegian preschool is much more play oriented and focused on developing social skills, teaching children to get along, solve conflicts, etc. This also carries over to school where there is a strong focus on preventing bullying. However, bullying is generally not handled by punishing bullies but more centered around improving social skills, teaching empathy, etc. But you can probably see the same emphasis in the Norwegian prison system.
Norway spends a fortune on subsidizing child care for all parents so that all Norwegian children can go to a high-quality preschool, which they are guaranteed by law.
But it is not like there are no sacrifices to make for all this. I hate the darkness of Scandinavian winters. There is no easy fix for that. Americans have plenty of options around that.
Food, Government Regulations, Freedoms and Responsibilities
Americans have much wider selection in almost any product including food. It also tends to be much cheaper both to buy and eat out. However, I would argue Scandinavia food tends to be healthier. Regulations regarding additives is much stricter. So you find less sugar, salt and fat added. As an American you need to be more conscious. Buy food at special organic stores, make more stuff from the ground up yourself. Being somewhat health while being lazy is easier in Scandinavia as the prepackaged food tends to be less bad.
In Scandinavia, you coast along on autopilot to a larger degree. Government takes care of a lot. Tax returns arrive pre-filled out without any action on your part. You are registered to vote automatically and get your voting card in the mail when it is time to vote. Food is usually marked in the store according to how healthy it is. There is much stricter regulation on food safety and additives so you need to spend less time on it. For example, children under 1 year old should not eat food with salt or sugar in it. I looked across a whole section in a huge American food store and could not find any food for young children without sugar or salt. In my native Norway, that is trivial to find in any dinky little grocery store because they are simply not allowed to sell baby food with those additives.
That is my experience in the US in general. You spend a lot more time checking stuff. You look at food labels, clothing labels, and contracts more carefully. It is much easier to get screwed over. Your rights are not protected and catered for to the same degree. America is all about choice and taking care of stuff yourself for better or worse.
Socializing in Scandinavia and America
There is is also a question of personality traits. Americans can be high and low and a lot of fun. They can be energetic, angry, fun, half-crazy, conspiracy theorists, or whatever. Scandinavians will come across as much more grounded and even-keeled. People may be a bit more boring, but you will also encounter fewer batshit crazy or angry people. But there may also be fewer people to really energize and excite you.
If you are a really outgoing and social person, then Scandinavian culture can rub you the wrong way. On the other hand if you are a bit of an introvert, then American society can feel very exhausting. The constant pressure to be social, talking and engaged can drain you.
In short there is no perfect society. It really depends on you. But there is perhaps a bigger danger of screwing up life in the US. If you want to play it safe, go to Scandinavia 😉