Over 55,000 Swedes in Norway
Norway’s Scandinavian neighbors are now its second largest group of immigrants
M. Michael Brady
The front page of the Friday, March 6, 2015, edition of Aftenposten was in yellow on blue, the colors of the Swedish flag. It headlined the feature of the week’s A-magasinet (magazine supplement) on the burgeoning numbers of Swedes working in Norway. It quoted the remark by Swedish film director Ronnie Sandal that “My generation regards Norwegians as an aristocracy, rich people who can give you a job,” and the subheading explained that “More than 55,000 Swedes now work in Norway. How does that affect us?”
The A-Magasinet feature documents a recent demographic trend. Swedes now make up the second largest group of labor migrants after Poles, and there are twice as many of them as there were in 2005. Most Swedish workers in Norway, particularly those under 30, work in retail shops, services, and temporary staff replacements. About a third of the 55,000-some in the country work in the Oslo area. They are fellow Scandinavians, so in Oslo Swedes go relatively unnoticed in everyday life, because to Norwegians they seem to be “like us.” That’s an almost truth. There are differences between Swedes and Norwegians, just as there are between any two nationalities.
The differences lead to stereotyping. Until about ten years ago, young Swedes on a fling would go to Oslo where jobs were plentiful and could support a partying lifestyle. That penchant sometimes annoyed the residents of the city. In 2008, Partysvensker go home! graffiti was painted on walls along St. Olavs gate in downtown Oslo. That brought the English/Norwegian mix neologism into the language, and in 2010 a rap single entrenched partysvensker in everyday lingo.
The scene that gave rise to that moniker has faded. Harsh reality drives today’s Swedish labor migration to Norway, particularly among the young. As director Ronnie Standahl (30 this year) has observed, his generation is the first in a hundred years in Sweden that has lesser chances than their parents to chart a worthwhile future and to get a job and a home.
That shift, along with the increasing numbers of people involved, has triggered research to understand the trend. A study conducted by sociologist Christer Hyggen at the Center for Welfare and Labor Research in Oslo found that the transition between partysvensker and the hardworking Swedish youth of today indeed has taken place. Two weeks ago, March 6, culture historian Ida Tolgensbakk of the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages of the University of Oslo presented her doctoral dissertation on a study of Swedish labor migrants in Oslo, based on life story interviews, fieldwork on a Facebook group, and texts from pop culture and the media.
Aftenposten journalists Bjørn Egil Halvorsen and Kjersti Nipen and photographer Fartein Rudjord approached the topic as had the scholars. They conducted in-depth interviews of four Swedes representative of the major sectors of the diaspora in Oslo. The result was four short stories, each with a one-line quote that distilled the views of Swedes working in the city.
• Jenny Cay (25) arrived in 2010 from Malmø and now works as a timekeeper in the gigantic IKEA home goods hypermarket in the Furuset district of Oslo. She was astonished by the privileges of Norwegian workplaces: “When I first arrived, I was astounded to see that Norwegians could expect free fruit on the job.”
• Ingmar Nielsen (34) arrived in 2004 from Karlstad and now is on the staff of the Hydroparken kindergarten, supervising and teaching children in Norwegian and in Swedish. He believes that “Working conditions are better here, as in the social contact between colleagues.”
• Håkan Appel (47) arrived in April 2014, posted to the Swedish Church in Oslo as a congregational teacher. He humorously observes that “Norway is said to have an upper class as well as Swedes and Poles.”
• Nina Jarebrink (34) arrived in 2000 to join a Norwegian boyfriend. At first, she took jobs with the Hennes & Mauritz clothing chain, and now she has her own clothing design studio. As a Swedish woman, she has experienced the phenomenon that “when Norwegian men have had a few drinks, they try to speak Swedish.”
Designer Jarebrink expresses the sentiment felt by many Swedes in Oslo: “I’m in between and feel that I’m svorsk (neologism combining the words for Swedish and Norwegian). So for me, it’s parity. I regard Oslo as my home. But in sports, when it’s Norway against Sweden, I cheer for Sweden.”
The circumstance of Swedes in Oslo now is part of the cultural landscape of the city. Director Ronnie Sandal’s first feature film Underdog, (the original title Svenskjävel translates to “Swedish devil”) is a tragicomic story of young Swedes who flee mass unemployment in their home country in search of more viable lives in nouveau-riche Oslo. Clearly, the relationship between Sweden and Norway is shifting.
This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.