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.

City beach in Oslo, Norway, next to an art gallery with the medieval fortress Akershus festning in the background. I captures Scandinavian emphasis on culture, public spaces and recreation.
In your American life you got a big house with a swimming pool. Enjoy!

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.

Americans like their cars, or rather pickups, big. Forget about getting one of these in Scandinavia. It will be taxed to death before you get your hands on one and then you will pay through the nose to fill the gas tank.
Americans like to go all out when there is play time. Maximum fun in shortest amount of time.
A Norwegian house is more modest and there is no swimming pool :(

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.

Norwegians will spend less time on paid activities and are more likely utilize a richer selection of free public playgrounds and recreational areas. Free activities maintained by the public is more common here.
This is what Norwegians live for: Spending time on their mountain cabin, relaxing, skiing, reading Nordic noir crime novels or sitting in the Sauna.
The weather in Scandinavia may suck compared to places like California, but with a strong currency, lots of vacation time and proximity to Europe, Scandinavians get to enjoy the rich variety of beautiful cities and countries that exist across such a culturally diverse continent. Cities such as Prague shown above is a cheap destination for Scandinavians.

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.

Home Life

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.

Norwegian dugnad. You cannot pay your way out of this one. This is Scandinavian conformism at its worst of best depending on your perspective. Rich or poor, you are expected to join in on the communal effort.

Further Reflections

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.

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.

The Norwegian government watchdog looking after the interests of Norwegian children.
My first big Lego kit as a child in the 1980s. Why is the castle yellow? Because Lego was afraid gray blocks would be used by children to build tanks. This says a lot about Scandinavian mentality in the 80s for better or for worse.
He-Man action hero. I was part of the first generation of Norwegian kids who got access to American action filled cartoons, after the Norwegian government TV monopoly ended in the early 80s. He-Man was my first favorite.

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.

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.

BBQ in America. This is something I miss about America. The easy going banter. Everybody having a good time

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.

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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