Leisure is the vital ingredient in Nordic success


Risto Penttilä, The Financial Times 18.1.2007

During Finland´s six-month presidency of the European Union in 2006 hundreds of journalists visited the country. Many of them asked the same questions: Why are the Nordic countries at the top of the world´s competitive rankings? Why is there no corruption? Why is the Nordic school system so good?

Now that Germany has taken over the EU presidency, it may be the right time to reveal the secret behind Nordic success. It is not about taxation. It is not about the public sector and absolutely nothing to do with the Scandinavian welfare model. It is all about culture. It is about the rise of the Protestant leisure ethic.

Max Weber coined ”the Protestant work ethic” more than 100 years ago. The idea was that the Protestant religion, especially Calvinism, played an important role in the development of capitalism. Succeeding in life was seen as a sign of being among God´s chosen ones. Over the centuries working hard became a cultural norm and ceased to be connected to religion.

Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Norway – are not Calvinist. Most of the people are Lutherans and they are not very religious. If you visit a local church during the Sunday service, it is likely to be almost empty.

Neither do Nordic people work very hard these days. People in the five Nordic countries work fewer hours per year and fewer years per career than people in Japan, the US, Germany or almost any other place. Yet the Nordic countries have fared rather well: Finland, Denmark and Sweden are among the top five in global competitiveness rankings. The two laggards, Norway and Iceland, are among the top 15.

So how can the Protestant work ethic help to explain the success of the Nordic countries? The answer is that citizens of the Nordic countries are as serious about leisure as they are about work. Having a good balance between life and work is considered as important as working hard once was. Nowadays, a good work-life balance is seen as a sign of being among the chosen ones. In other words, the Protestant work ethic has been complemented by the Protestant leisure ethic.

The Nordic attitude to work and leisure becomes clear when one talks to foreigners working here. A recent study by researchers at the University of Tampere revealed that foreign information and communication technology workers in Finland considered a healthy balance between life and work to be the most appealing aspect of life in Finland. As one employee put it: ”They actually expect you to leave work at four or 5pm!”

But they also expect you to be efficient. There is considerably less small talk and socialising in Finnish work places than other countries. In Swedish offices, there is more talk. But it is not idle chit-chat. Conversation is aimed at building a consensus for future action.

Not everyone goes home at 5pm. Many Nordic professionals work long hours too. But working long hours is not the cultural norm it is in many other countries. The defining cultural norm is to be efficient at work and to leave ample time for recreation.

According to a joint Finnish-Swedish survey of CEOs active in all the Nordic countries, commitment to leisure is strongest in Norway where ?people will head for the mountains when they think sufficient time has been spent on a work-related problem whether the problem has been solved or not?. Then again, the Norwegians can afford it. As one expert put it, ”to create a perfect Nordic model, you take the Finnish school system, the Swedish pension system, flexicurity [flexible labour markets] from Denmark and oil and gas from Norway”.

The love of nature does not mean that Nordic people would be lackadaisical about work. Indeed, seriousness about work is the one part of the old Protestant work ethic that has not gone away even as people have started working shorter hours.

How do we know that a good work-life balance is the key ingredient in the success of the Nordic countries? Well, we do not know that. Perhaps Nordic countries are doing well despite spending so much time with their families and hobbies. Perhaps working shorter hours is an early sign of eventual decay. But any way one looks at it, the Nordic countries have shown that it is possible to succeed without sacrificing long summer holidays and care-free weekends. As such, they offer hope to the toiling masses of the world. Whether the success will last is another matter.


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