On the Edge: Liberating the individual from work

Solveig Torvik

Solveig Torvik

“On the Edge” is the new opinion column in the Norwegian American Weekly, which offers opinions written by invited contributors to make some comments on the current issues that define modern Norway.

In no other aspect of its effort to build a just society has Norway run so far off the rails as in the benefits it offers workers­— especially those who don’t want to work.

One-fourth of the workforce is absent from work each day, reportedly due to illness or disability. That’s the highest worker absentee rate in Europe. On average, Norwegians were absent from work 4.8 weeks in 2004, excluding vacations. When the usual five weeks of vacation is added, plus the 11 paid holidays a year and weekends, Norwegians typically only work half the year, according to calculations by Bergens Tidene newspaper. Norway’s workers are absent from work due to sickness every fourteenth workday, Aftenposten reported.

“In Norway, workers don’t have any incentive not to be sick,” says Christopher Prinz, a senior economist with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. He calls Norway’s paid sick leave policy “more generous than in any other country.”

Indeed, Norway’s benevolent worker benefit system appears, to American eyes, all but free of penalties or incentives. Whatever the underlying cause, worker sickness/disability absentees cost Norway some 90,000 to 100,000 man-years of lost productivity in 2007, according to former Labor and Social Inclusion Minister Dag Terje Andersen.

“It seems to have become easy to get a disability pension,” says Prof. Kjell G. Salvanes, an economist at the Norwegians School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen. “We know from research that the Norwegian population is not ill—” at least not as ill as these figures suggest. And while full retirement age is supposed to be 67, Salvanes says it has become “more like 58.”

About 12 percent of the population received health-related benefits in 2007– 333,544 of them disability benefits. Another 700,000 got some type of pension, and 32,100 were drawing unemployment benefits. All told, this meant that 23 percent of the Norwegian population was receiving government assistance as a primary source of income that year.

Norwegians work only 37.5 hours per week, yet it’s not uncommon to hear workers complain about being “brutalized” in the workplace – a claim that wouldn’t meet the laugh test in most countries.

Norway has created a culture of remarkable worker entitlement. Yet for too many of its workers, Norway seemingly has failed to preserve the connection between personal effort and reward. Too many of them are allowed to game the country’s envied, well-intentioned benefits system.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has declared that reducing worker absence is among his top priorities. However, it’s unclear if meaningful efforts to do so actually are underway; between 2008 and 2009, worker absences due to sickness rose 10 percent. The workers’ unions are Norway’s most powerful political entities, and Stoltenberg’s Labor Party does of course owe fealty to those unions.

Because half of Norway’s work force is employed by the government – either central or municipal – the unemployment rate typically hovers around 2.5 percent. Andersen sees this high rate of government employment as a plus, especially during times of economic meltdown. “It gives us stability,” he says.

Despite all this, Norway ranks high in national productivity. That’s because when they are on the job, Norwegians get more done in less time thanks to mechanization of the workplace and because they produce high-value goods. The workforce is well educated and technologically savvy.

It’s commonly held hereabouts that the more power given to the state, the less power is left to the individual. But Prof. Fredrik Engelstad, sociologist at the University of Oslo’s Institute for Social Research, says that’s not the Norwegian credo.

“The role of the state is to liberate the individual,” he argues.

In Norway the state has in any case liberated many of them from work.

Solveig Torvik is the author of the social commentary “The World’s Best Place Norway and the Norwegians,” an e-book available from www.smashwords.com, where it can be downloaded in print format. Printed copies also are available at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle.

Please bear in mind that opinions expressed in “On The Edge” are not necessarily those of the Norwegian American Weekly, and our publication of these views are not an endorsement of them.

This article was originally published in the Oct. 15, 2010 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email subscribe@norway.com.

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