Scandinavian Quality of Life

Ask anyone of their perception of Scandinavia and they will usually provide the following stereotypes; high taxes, high cost of living, high standard of living and blonds. With the exception of the latter, I thought I’d deal with each of these topics in kind over upcoming posts, beginning with Quality of Life.

Scandinavian cities routinely rank as having the highest quality of life indices in the world. Monocle ranks Copenhagen as #2 in the world while Mercer ranks it at #11. Oslo and Stockholm score in the top 25 as do numerous Canadian cities (ie, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto) while American cities struggle to make the top 30.

Monocle Quality of Life Index

Mercer 2010 Quality of Living Index

But what is “quality of life”? So much of this is subjective as, what one considers integral to quality of life, another considers unnecessary. If you define “quality of life” by the North American standard of low taxes, low cost of living and a McMansion in the suburbs, Scandinavia will probably leave you very disappointed. If you define quality of life as work/life balance, excellent public transportation, personal safety, universal health care and education, you may feel more satisfied. While that may smell of socialism to some, to Scandinavians, it’s a way of life.

Work/Life Balance: For North Americans used to +40 hour work weeks and 3 weeks vacation, Scandinavia is close to Nirvana. In Denmark, the official work week is 37 hours and even this seems to be flexible. By law, workers are required to take 5 week’s vacation (including three weeks during the summer) and many employers provide an additional week’s holiday (including my own).

Employers are extremely flexible regarding working hours and there is strong emphasis placed on family life. Employees routinely leave by 4:00 to pick up children. The exodus on Friday begins even earlier, with most employees gone by 4:30. Despite this, Scandinavian countries remain quite competitive with per-capita gross income significantly higher than both Canada and the US (more on this to come).

Public transportation: Put bluntly, the transportation system of Scandinavian cities puts North American cities to shame (and some European ones too). Greater Copenhagen is blanketed with an extensive, modern network of trains, buses and metro system. While the standard argument is that such systems are only possible in population-dense Europe, there are many urban areas in North America with a much greater population density than Scandinavian cities. The reality is, Scandinavian countries invest tremendous amounts of money in maintaining and upgrading these systems. And the development does not stop. Copenhagen has just begun a major expansion of its metro system. If history is any indication, the project will come in on-time and on-budget. When you include the resources spent on bicycle infrastructure, you will begin to understand why Copenhagen is often regarded as having one of the best (and environmentally-friendly) public transportation systems in the world.

Copenhagen's Metro System


Copenhagen's Regional S-Tog (S-Train) system

Political Corruption: As the previous post alluded, public infrastructure projects tend to come in on-time and on-budget in Denmark (although I am sure there are exceptions). Danes place tremendous emphasis on public integrity and accountability and politicians and public officials know they will be roundly punished if they fail to deliver. As a result, the level of corruption is enviably low.

In the 2010 Corruption Perception Index, Denmark tied with New Zealand and Singapore for first at 9.3 while Sweden and Finland tied for 4th at 9.2. Canada came in 6th at 8.9 while Norway was 10th at 8.6. The US comes in 22nd at 7.1. If you want to see how Germanic countries (ie, Scandinavia, Germany) differ from Latin-based European countries (ie, France, Italy), take a look at the Corruption Perception Index. Italy is 67th at 3.9!

2010 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index

Health Care: I must admit that I have no first-hand knowledge of the Danish health care system other than what I have read and heard. True, the system appears to suffer from the same problems afflicting other developed countries (ie, aging population, soaring health care costs), but these don’t appear to be of any greater magnitude than elsewhere. In general, the level of health care services is considered to be of excellent quality although I have heard that Danish health-care professionals tend to be much more “hands-off” and use medical interventions such as diagnostic testing and drug prescriptions much more sparingly. The general approach seems to be that if you look healthy, you are healthy, something which has much to recommend it but which can also lead to problems on occasion. Oh, yes, and did I mention that it is entirely free?

Child Care: In family-friendly Denmark, it should not be suprising that all Danish couples are entitled to a total of 1 year paid parental leave following the birth of a child. This is frequently split between parents given the high percentage of females in the workforce and the active role men play in raising children. Infants typically enter subsidized daycare between 6 and 12 months and begin kindergarten at age 3 until they begin primary education.

Education: Imagine that you could attend school for your entire academic career for free. Not just primary and secondary education, but university too; undergraduate, graduate, professional degrees. Now imagine that you could actually get PAID to attend university! Sound too good to be true? Actually, this is a reality in Denmark. True, the country may not have universities with the prestige of Harvard or Oxford, but post-secondary education is of very high quality and university is readily accessible to everyone regardless of age or socioeconomic background. As a resident, it is my understanding that even I would be eligible to attend university for free.    

Safety: Despite a spate of recent shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark ranks as one of the safest countries in the world, along with its Scandinavian cousins1. The homicide rate is 10.68/1 million residents with Sweden and Norway exhibiting similar figures. This contrasts with 14.91 for Canada and 42.80 in the US. Interestingly, Finland, which has much more lenient firearm acquisition laws, has a homicide rate of 28.332. As Newton’s Law of Motion states, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…

Similar to homicide, rates of other crimes remain extremely low. Although bicycle theft and vandalism (particularly graffiti) remain rampant, the level of public trust is very high and there are very few places where you will feel uncomfortable going in Copenhagen, even late at night. I have already posted on the Danish habit of abandoning infants outside of cafés and restaurants (see Quintessential Copenhagen). The following is a picture I took outside of my apartment. The purse remained there for the entire day, over which time  hundreds of individuals would have walked past it. I have no idea what eventually happened to it.

Purse left outside my apartment




About Canadianindenmark

A Canadian expat working in the biotechnology industry in Copenhagen, Denmark
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