Stifling Penchant : Conformity--a Must in Scandinavia

Times Staff Writer

A British consultant recalled recently how Swedish delegates to an international economic conference that she attended in the 1950s were quickly dubbed “the quiet men” by other participants.

“They arrived punctually, were always very polite and well-dressed but stuck together and rarely opened their mouths,” said the consultant, Jean Phillips-Martinsson, who advises businesses on cultural stereotypes. “That was 30 years ago, and nothing has changed since.”

Learning to stick together and blend with the crowd comes with mother’s milk for those born in the Scandinavian north.


In a region where a tough, agrarian people once saw communal harmony as the key to survival, conformity is a religion.

The ‘Jante Law’

The Norwegian writer Aksel Sandemose called it the “Jante law”--an unwritten, unspoken, but all-pervasive Scandinavian social imperative that no one must dare excel, no one must be allowed to fall behind, all should seek the middle ground.

Although he wrote more than half a century ago, Sandemose’s portrait of a small Danish town he disguised with the name “Jante” helps explain the stifling penchant for communal harmony and conformity that still dictates the shape of life in the Scandinavian nations of Sweden, Norway and Denmark--three of the world’s most prosperous countries.

With a population of only 18 million--roughly that of greater New York City--strewn over an area the size of all Central Europe, the Scandinavian countries retain the aura of small communities where everyone knows everyone.

Amid the gleaming stainless steel, polished glass and unlittered streets, few stand out in the scrubbed, blond, Protestant citizenry.

Here, consensus and compromise are a way of life.

There are few incentives to excel.

In Norwegian schools, grades no longer exist for preteen students, while the message in classrooms throughout the region--nurtured as much by the absence of reward and the example of life around them as by any overt policy--is that to be average is to be safe.


“We don’t admire big stars or heroes very much,” noted Jacob Vedel-Petersen, director of the Institute for Social Science Research in Copenhagen. “The man in the street is our hero.”

Even for those with power, that seems to be the role model.

Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson carries his own bags, lives in a rented apartment and, by law, opens his mail to any citizen interested enough to drop by and read it.

Successful businessmen and the few genuinely privileged Scandinavians tend to live unobtrusively. Flamboyance is discouraged.

A Copenhagen resident recalled once helping up a lone, nondescript woman who had fallen in the snow only to stare into the face of Denmark’s reigning monarch, Queen Margrethe II.

Even death is no escape from Nordic conformity, as one hapless Swedish widower discovered when he tried to fulfill his wife’s wish by placing at the head of her grave a roughly hewn stone embedded with a natural cross she had found on a country walk.

In a poignant scene from Swedish film maker Jan Troell’s powerful documentary of modern Sweden, “Land of Dreams,” the widower pleads for understanding but learns that in the cause of what is called “good grave culture,” all stones must be correctly proportioned.

“The stone does not comply with the rules, which allow no exception,” declares the responsible bureaucrat. “Proportion is important.”

Seed for New Deal

In the 1930s, the strength of this communal loyalty and inbred egalitarianism helped spawn the world’s most comprehensive welfare states that became the seeds for other experiments, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Former socialist Chancellors Willy Brandt of West Germany and Bruno Kreisky of Austria returned home from World War II exile in Scandinavia with ideas eventually transplanted to their own countries.

But no welfare state has reached the refinement of those in the Nordic region, where a bewildering array of benefits has distributed wealth with a remarkably even hand, eliminated deprivation and enabled the weak to keep up.

Denmark Rated First

A recently published University of Pennsylvania survey that rated the social progress of 124 countries ranked Denmark first, Sweden fifth and Norway seventh. (The United States was listed 27th.)

Life expectancy is higher, infant mortality lower, literacy more widespread and average household incomes greater than anywhere else in the West.

A hotel doorman in Sweden may earn half the salary of a university professor, but both probably have at least a modest country house and a boat to go with it.

To an outsider, state benefits seem almost limitless.

The Norwegian government finally drew the line recently when it debated, but eventually rejected, financing winter Mediterranean holidays for every citizen living in the country’s northernmost counties, an area already reliant on huge government subsidies.

Sweden’s Social Democrats campaigned successfully in recent national elections on pledges of a guaranteed six-week annual vacation for all and 18 months in government-paid leave to be divided between parents of a new baby.

Earlier this year, Sweden extended the welfare state from the home to the barn--legislating an animal bill of rights that included a pig’s right to straw and a cow’s access to grazing land.

But a growing number of Scandinavians have become uneasy about both the economic and social cost of such benefits.

In an increasingly competitive international climate and at a time when individual enterprise is applauded elsewhere, there is worry that the welfare state may have overwhelmed what little remained of individual initiative. The centripetal forces that press conformity, they fear, might now be too excessive.

Ideologues of the political right have long argued that the cradle-to-grave care and heavy tax burdens of the Nordic welfare states effectively remove the challenges essential for individual growth and emotional well-being.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower went so far as to blame Sweden’s high suicide rate on the welfare state--a statement for which he later apologized.

Now socialists too have begun to doubt.

“Veterans of the labor movement were convinced there would be a proportionality between wealth and well-being,” Einer Foerde, Norwegian Labor Party vice president and a member of Parliament, noted. “Now we’re clearly aware there is no connection. The realization that more wealth has not led to increased satisfaction is a fact.”

Foerde is not alone.

Undisputed Achievement

The triple-glazed windows that now keep the arctic cold at bay and livings rooms cozy, the Volvo sedans that cruise well-maintained Nordic roads, the rich department store displays and the security of a land where the doctor sends no bills and a college education is free all reflect undisputed achievement.

But in more than 40 interviews, followers of Scandinavia’s political left repeatedly questioned the wisdom of a system that, for all its material success, seems somehow to have fallen short, to have left a void.

The current mood in no way signals the end of the welfare state, however. In a state apparatus so vast that more than half the voters now depend on the government as their principal source of income, there are powerful forces to retain the status quo.

During their long years in power--50 of the last 56 years in Sweden--the region’s socialist parties also have managed to develop extensive political machines to dispense petty favors that help keep their flock faithful.

But for the first time since the welfare states were born, disenchantment extends across the entire political rainbow.

The sense of disillusionment is most visible in Denmark, where a deepening pessimism hangs over the flat Jutland pastureland and islands to the east like a dark, gathering cloud.

It is here that Scandinavia’s first welfare state took root, and it is here that the disquiet is most visible.

The nation rated by the University of Pennsylvania as the world’s most progressive wallows in a growing crisis of confidence.

The fact that poverty in Denmark is so rare--when a group of social scientists tried to study it, they couldn’t find any--doesn’t seem to help.

“It’s a spiritual vacuum, a vacuum of moral values,” said Hans Hertle, a professor of Danish literature at Copenhagen University and a lifetime social democrat. “As a nation, we seem to have lost faith in our future.”

Oil-Fed Spending

In Norway, the crisis is more urgent, dominated by a sense of alarm that the spending binge triggered by North Sea oil riches over the past 15 years has left the government with huge obligations and its people out of touch with their roots.

In interviews with members of the Parliament in Oslo, the phrase “completely un-Norwegian” repeatedly cropped up to describe the country’s spiraling consumption, reduced savings and a disturbing attitude among younger people that the government owes them a decent living.

The origins of this disquiet are hard to define, especially in a culture where launching a dinner table discussion about the deeper meanings of life provokes frowns, an awkward silence and a quick change of subjects.

In the lands of Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, Soeren Kierkegaard and Ingmar Bergman, raising such existential topics is tantamount to bad manners.

Certainly financial crisis has played an important role.

Denmark has so consistently lived beyond its means over the past decade that it now sports one of the world’s highest per-capita national debts.

Enforced spending cuts already have reduced the quality of key social services such as health care. Further cuts are bound to come.

Norwegian officials, like over-effusive hosts on the morning after a big party, groan at commitments made during the oil-rich years, including subsidies to remote northern farmers that sometimes exceed the entire value of their crops.

“Norway in Wonderland,” summed up a headline on the subject earlier this year in the respected magazine The Economist.

“Perhaps it’s gone a bit too far in what benefits you can get,” said Juul Bjerke, head of the economics department at the Norwegian Federation of Trade Unions. “I think the welfare state needs to be modified.”

But in a region barely three generations from a collective rural poverty trap, the present disquiet is more than economic. It is also fueled by a feeling that wealth and prosperity have made it too easy for those entrusted with the national future.

Indeed, those raised during the postwar period have been dubbed “the dessert generations” because life has been, at least figuratively, a constant diet of strawberries and ice cream.

“Maybe it’s wrong to remove all the stones from (life’s) path,” mused Danish novelist Tage Skou-Hanson. “We have undervalued the importance of challenge.”

Lamented Norway’s leading pollster, Henri Valen, “There’s a complete decline in school standards. There’s less authority--no one demands work from the young. It’s crazy.”

In part because of these feelings, as governments look for more ways to trim costs they are also admitting, as never before, the need for greater individual assertiveness.

In a major speech, Denmark’s Prime Minister Poul Schlueter recently called for a new balance between public and individual responsibility.

“It is evident that the systems are dominant, that people’s liberty of choice has been restricted and the system itself has thus got the upper hand,” he said. “We are laying the scene for in-depth changes in the way our society functions.”

Last year the Danish government reversed a policy dating into the past century of institutionalizing the elderly, instead focusing on ways of allowing them to retain a degree of personal independence in their own homes.

Social welfare officials now argue that it is both cheaper and better for pensioner morale to pay for necessary home modifications and medical and logistical support services.

“We’re trying to give people more choice and more freedom,” declared Adam Trier, deputy permanent secretary in Denmark’s Ministry of Social Affairs.

Norway is discussing a policy of paying adult offspring to look after their own parents, in part to alleviate pressures on existing facilities, but also to revive family ties that some fear have become far too weak.

Today, a pensioner with a doctor’s appointment doesn’t ask a neighbor or relative for transportation. He calls a taxi and the government pays.

Couples send toddlers to state-run day-care centers for the balance of their waking hours and view government support for the aged as a perk that relieves them of responsibility for parents.

Families get cash grants and subsidized household help and can usually ease a troublesome 16- or 17-year-old out of the house into a government-subsidized apartment should the need arise.

“The act of procreation excepted, the parental state offers a substitute for the family unit in the performance of just about every one of its functions,” noted Neil Gilbert, a University of California professor of social welfare who spent part of last year as a Fulbright scholar in Sweden.

Added Torstein Moland, a state secretary in the Norwegian prime minister’s office: “There’s a dramatic change in people’s attitudes. It was once the norm that a daughter cared for her aging parents, but it seems much less now and will be even less in the future.”

A recent survey conducted on behalf of the Oslo daily Aftenposten found that only 3 in 10 people polled believed children should have primary responsibility for their parents in old age.

In countries where between 60% and 80% of adult women work, governments are also looking for ways of reinvigorating ties between mothers and younger children.

One option under discussion in Denmark has been to encourage parents to rotate, taking time off work to assist in the day-care center attended by their own children.

Fifteen to 20 years ago, the government argued that a child should be allowed to go to day care when 9 or 10 months old, but this has been rejected by voters--even the social democrats.

Bjoern von Sydow, a senior adviser to the Swedish prime minister, said, “They (parents) want to be at home until the baby is perhaps 2 or 3.”

Sweden’s youthful Green Party, which in elections last September became the first new party since 1918 to win seats in the country’s Parliament, ran on a platform, not of equal rights for women at the workplace, but on a program advocating support for women who want to stay home as full-time mothers.

Two-Edged Sword

The unprecedented opportunity afforded women in the Nordic welfare states has also proven a two-edged sword.

On one side, a recent study by the Washington-based Population Crisis Committee assessing the quality of life for women in 99 nations ranked Sweden first, with both Norway and Denmark in the top 10.

Norway’s 18-member Cabinet, for example, counts eight women, including Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, in its ranks.

At the same time, however, Denmark’s adult female suicide rate is nearly 40% higher than that of any other Western country, while Sweden’s is above the European average.

“Danish women have found it very hard adjusting to not seeing their families,” said Unni Bille-Brahe, a psychiatrist at Odense University Hospital, who has studied the problem.

There is also now evidence to suggest that weakening family links, blurring sex roles in a society where the majority of women now work plus the speed of social change may also have accelerated this phenomenon.

In part because of pressure from women’s rights groups, the issue has received little attention.

“It’s a holy thing,” said Trier, the Danish Social Affairs Ministry official. “You can’t touch it.”

Nordic planners are quick to dismiss the region’s historically high suicide rates as merely more honest statistics in a Protestant country where suicide carries less of a stigma.

But studies in the 1960s noted that the absence of competitive outlets to dissipate aggression and frustration may be one answer to this high rate. Some believe the strength of community bond is so great that aggression tends to be turned inward.

“If a man is desperate and the solution is someone must die, in our countries he will often decide it is he himself who must go,” Vedel-Petersen said.

Similar Soul-Searching

The economic difficulties that grip Norway and Denmark are less evident in Sweden, but other events have caused a similar kind of soul-searching.

The 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and a series of subsequent scandals have shaken Swedes’ self-confidence, raising their own questions about the nation’s future direction.

The re-evaluations under way in all three countries come at a time when they are increasingly exposed to international trends. Much as small, close-knit communities in America were forced to adjust to a larger world around them, so too have modern communications ended Scandinavia’s isolation.

The near-universal knowledge of English and the growing influence of television, for example, have opened the region to a new intensity of American and British ideas, including the individualism that has dominated much of the Ronald Reagan-Margaret Thatcher years.

“As a planner, you must be aware that a social trend in California can reach here faster than it hits a medium-sized town in Illinois,” Von Sydow said. “It’s something that was never dreamed of when English was made a compulsory subject in the schools.”

Anyone subjected to the excited Swedish television commentary of a Cincinnati Bengals football game can attest to Von Sydow’s view.

On another level, Sweden’s recently unveiled Draconian tax reform plan, which advocates slashing corporate and personal income taxes from as high as 75% to as low as 30%, carried a flavor more akin to Reaganomics than a socialist welfare state.

Direct Challenges

But the extent of changes under way in Scandinavia is most visibly reflected in the rise of political parties--radical in the Nordic context--that for the first time directly challenge the consensus that has protected the welfare state from serious scrutiny.

With 10% to 20% of public support in recent opinion polls, these parties have gathered an eager and growing following among an unsettled electorate in Denmark and Norway.

The most prominent spokesman of this movement is a blunt 44-year-old businessman named Carl Hagen, who as leader of the Norwegian Progress Party argues the welfare state has undermined traditional values.

“The welfare state is a complete failure,” Hagen declared during an hourlong interview in his cramped, cluttered Oslo parliamentary office. “Norwegians have to start rethinking a lot of old truths. We need competition. We have to concentrate on winners, not losers.”

With heroes like Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand and Adam Smith, Hagen is definitely on the fringe of a political environment where the tag liberal describes someone on the political right.

Formidable Force

But his calls for a greater sense of individual responsibility and a return to traditional homespun values, such as more respect for the elderly, have helped generate an appeal that makes him a formidable political force in the country.

“Young people need challenges, not sociologists to tell them about their rights,” Hagen said. “I say to young people, ‘You have duties, not rights.’ There’s an attitude in the younger generation that shows they are not taught to have responsibility for themselves.”

Indeed, Hagen’s challenge goes beyond the welfare state to take on the heart of Scandinavia’s “Jante law.”

“Why is it, when everyone wants to be rich, that it can be wrong for someone to succeed?” he asked. “If someone makes it in Silicon Valley or in American business, he’s considered a good man and you look up to him. In Norway, it’s the other way around--you get a negative reaction.

“When a society gets into that way of thinking, it takes a hell of a long time and a lot of effort to change it.”

After a brief pause, Hagen concluded: “I’m trying to change it.”