Nordic Sibling Rivalry

How Norwegian oil wealth and Swedish migrant work have reversed the centuries-old Scandinavian power dynamic.

Svolvaer, the town in Lofoten where the author worked.
Svolvaer, the town in Lofoten where the author worked.

Photo by David Michael.

It is bizarre to think of modern Sweden, so often lauded as a paragon of social and economic stability, as coughing up migrant workers. Stranger still is that Swedes migrate in extraordinary numbers to neighboring Norway, which has always been regarded in both countries as Sweden’s little brother. Often at war, Sweden forced Norway into an uneven union for most of the 19th century. Though politically independent of Sweden for more than 100 years, Norway has to this day remained culturally subordinate to its larger, more established neighbor. Norwegians watch Swedish television, listen to Swedish music, and read Swedish books. Before the Norwegian translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was released, the original Swedish version was the best-selling book in Norway. But in the last 25 years, Norway has added workers to the list of things it imports from Sweden, and this shift has resulted in an odd reversal in how these two rivals view one another.

In the late 1960s, oil was discovered off the coast of Norway. A few years later, the government-owned Statoil was founded, though it didn’t post a profit until the 1980s. The resulting oil boom has made Norway one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is currently valued at roughly $600 billion. From 1999 to 2009, the average Norwegian family saw an increase in annual income of about $17,000. But with a population of only 5 million, Norway’s booming economy has been short one thing: workers. That’s where the Swedes came in. Current estimates of the number of Swedes living and working in Norway hover between 80,000 and 100,000. it’s thought that there are 50,000 Swedes in Oslo alone, which is about 10 percent of the city’s population. One town in Sweden is even paying its unemployed youth to go to Norway to find work.

Most of these Swedish migrants are service workers. Indeed, the Swede-as-drunken-loutish-service worker has become something of a stereotype in Norway. The 2010 rap hit “Partysvenske” is an extended mockery of the cliché of male Swedish migrant workers, who are portrayed as effete drunks who have invaded Oslo’s nightlife. At one point, the rappers—Jaa9 & Onklp—chide, “Make a mojito, do what you do well.” Condescension toward Swedish migrant workers has become prevalent enough for Norwegian television to produce a mockumentary series titled Swedes Are People.

There’s a weird power dynamic at play in this role reversal between the two countries, with both groups exhibiting a sort of passive aggressive bitterness toward the other that can be explained only by centuries of national sibling rivalry. For their part, Norwegians seem eager to buck Swedish cultural influence and assert their economic dominance. The newest Norwegian denim maker is called “Anti Sweden,” and it is an explicit counter to Swedish jean brands that have historically been popular in the Norwegian market. Anti Sweden’s office even includes a separate, smaller entrance for Swedes to crawl through, as if to drive home the point. Speaking to the New York Times in 2007, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo described the power reversal and its related social implications:

“When I was young, Swedes had whiter teeth, clearer skin, Abba and Bjorn Borg. We had lots of fish, and not much more. Today, Swedes have been cut down to size. And I would say that many Norwegians enjoy the fact that so many Swedes are here doing menial jobs.”

When the Norwegian cross-country skier Petter Northug beat his Swedish rival across the line at the 2011 World Championships, he used the opportunity to taunt Sweden about the low value of the Swedish currency. The Swedish media, on the other hand, lament the fact that Swedes are reduced to literally peeling bananas in Norway—albeit for outsized salaries of about $23 an hour.

During the past 10 years, Norway has taken in more foreign labor than any other European country. While Norway accepts plenty of laborers from Eastern Europe, Swedes are easier to employ because of the similarities in language and culture. The near-interchangeability of Swedish and Norwegian makes Swedes an attractive option for jobs at cafes and bars. I’m told that many Norwegian employers actually prefer to hire Swedes to Norwegians, claiming Swedes have a stronger work ethic and commitment to customer service. Further, because of an arrangement between the Nordic countries, Swedes don’t need a work permit or visa to live in Norway.

The Svolvaer festival in Lofoten. The rain hats seem to be a trademark of the place.
The Svolvaer festival in Lofoten. The rain hats seem to be a trademark of the place.

Photo by David Michael.

If there are incentives for Norwegians to hire Swedes, the incentives are even greater for the Swedes. Norway has higher wages, shorter work weeks, and Swedes are granted a tax break for their first two years in the country. The Norwegian krone is also worth more than the Swedish krona. The practical result of Norwegian oil wealth is that Swedes can make almost double in Norway what they would in Sweden. It’s no surprise that they move to Norway for a few months, or even a few years, live cheaply, and return to Sweden like Vikings returning from a season of pillaging. Indeed, it’s been estimated that 90 percent of migrant Swedes return to their homeland within five years. What is somewhat astonishing, though, is the extent to which Sweden has now become the source of menial labor for its erstwhile little brother.

In Lofoten, where I worked for several months as a migrant after a Swedish friend told me I would “become rich like a troll” if I moved there, the service industry is connected intrinsically with tourism. My Swedish friends and I worked as cleaners, hotel reception clerks, baristas, and cooks. Elsewhere in Norway, Swedes find summer work filling in for vacationing Norwegians. A Swedish medical student I know worked as a sort of certified nursing assistant at a hospital ward for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. The work could be difficult, but he was paid upward of $52 an hour—much more than he could imagine earning in his native country doing similar work.

During my days as a service worker in Lofoten, I cleaned suites at a Norwegian luxury hotel, a rather garish place whose shag carpet rugs, glass-walled bathrooms, and semi-nude portraits of a former employee gave the rooms a vaguely porn-set feel. My Swedish colleagues and I descended upon the rooms, dusting, wiping, changing sheets, and folding fresh towels like origami. When it came time to do the bathrooms and we were told to fold the loose end of the toilet paper into a triangle—apparently nothing says luxury like having someone attend to the aesthetics of your wiping experience—I had to remind myself I was making $25 an hour. During the evenings, I worked at a sister hotel, where I waited on busloads of tourists from Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, serving them whale stew and fish that had been imported from China. After 9 p.m., I made $27 an hour. On Sundays, it was almost $29 an hour.

Despite the obviously tilted economic balance of power, my Swedish housemates constantly complained about the inefficiency of Norwegian society and how backward the culture was. I found most Norwegians to be delightful people who were laid-back, even bubbly, in comparison with the reserved, hyper-controlled Swedes. “You just like them because they’re almost Americans,” the Swedes snapped back. Indeed, there’s some truth to this. From their loud sense of humor to their lust for giant customized SUVS, living among Norwegians sometimes felt like being stateside. The Swedes, meanwhile, still viewed their Scandinavian cousins with a sense of cultural superiority. 

From an American perspective, the similarities between the two nations ultimately outweigh the differences. At an end-of-the-summer employee party in Lofoten, I looked at the drunken Swedes and Norwegians, arms around each other, raising their glasses to each country and singing each other’s drinking songs and they had become indistinguishable, blurring into one Nordic mass of blond hair and lovers of socialized health care. That apparent brotherhood will likely always be tinged with at least some element of conflict, a fact I was reminded of later that night. As I stared out at the sea, I heard a retching off to my right. A Swedish co-worker was puking. One of the Norwegians came out and, noticing what was happening, started serenading him with an early ‘90s Norwegian pop hit. The lyrics: “I’m not sick, I’m just Swedish.”

A longer version of this essay appeared in The Billfold.