Archive for June, 2011

Some of the things that are so desirable to many about Denmark is the relaxed lifestyle with a focus on family and friends, biking as a main source of transportation and a great way to experience the city, and the tropical weather. Well, maybe not the weather, consisting of gray skies, gusty winds, and rain.

But one of the major attractions that I have heard the most about is Danish jobs.  Danes work about an average of 37 hours per week with a minimum of 5 weeks’ vacation plus national holiday.  Liberal employment regulations, a broad net of social security and a pro-active labor market policy are all combined under what can best be described as flexicurity.  Although, a 37 hour work week might be the norm, the career oriented might tend to work more. In the U.S., besides a handful of national holidays, the typical American worker might get anywhere from 2 to 3 weeks out of the whole year for vacation and most of the times there are strings attached.  Some U.S. companies might not like for employees to take more than 1 week off at a time or expect employees to be relatively on call.

A big reason for this major difference is that employers are not obligated under federal law to offer any paid vacation, so more than 25% of American workers (based on government figures) don’t even have access to it.  However, in Denmark, paid time off is mandated by law.  So with all of this in mind, I think that Danes work to live and Americans live to work.

Last month, I attended a Work in Denmark seminar about the Danish workplace, since I am looking for job opportunities in Denmark.  And the speaker described his first experience with a Danish job, in which he had a very similar work mentality of the U.S. mentality that working long hours per day is a measure of ambition, success and drive.  So when he first received his job in Denmark, he said he worked to about 7pm one night while every Dane at the office went home by 4pm at the latest.  So the next morning, he said he sort of bragged about having worked so late and his Danish employees were actually not impressed.  Why?  Because of the construction of the work life in comparison to life, one is supposed to create a balance, meaning you still work hard but efficiently so that by 4pm you have time for family, friends, and leisure.  Working longer than the typical Danish work day, might actually be interpreted as not being efficient enough within your allotted work hours and that you have the potential to become a costly employee!  In Denmark, balance and moderation are highly honored values.  This would mean that ideally (and in practice) you are supposed to center your work around your life and not so much the other way around.  You are supposed to make time for family, friends, and leisure.

However, in the U.S., many Americans are faced with the fear of layoffs and the increasing pace of work which would mean that many American might be a bit reluctant to take time off.  This could be because of anxiety that they are not committed to their job or worry about dealing with the backlog of work that will be waiting for them after vacation.  Also, based on a study in the Journal of Happiness Studies (,  working actually makes Americans happier than Europeans because Americans believe more than Europeans that hard work is associated with success!

Lastly, I think the attainment of the American Dream, as a way to sum up our national ethos is still very much a driving factor for many Americans.  And work is the way to achieve this dream, which is not something I have come across in Danish culture.  Denmark has one of the highest employment rates, so it is not that Danes are lazy and don’t like to work, it’s just that work life is taken in moderation. But based on welfare structure, the U.S. has a liberal residual welfare model (but in practice is more pluralistic) which would mean you only get welfare assistance if you really need it.  In Denmark, because of the high taxes, ranging from 40-60% which essentially helps maintain the universal welfare state, even the unemployed receive a high level of benefits as well as comprehensive retraining for new jobs.

Therefore, the welfare state in Denmark produces a sense of security and comfort that the U.S. does not have in terms of unemployment.  Even maternity leave is about 12 months (paid) and paternity leave is an option.  Overall, it seems to me that if you were to take a step back from the U.S. and Denmark, Danes work to live meaning work is meant to be scheduled around one’s life while Americans live to work meaning that life tends to be scheduled around one’s job.  However, based on each country’s welfare models and socio-cultural values this might be quite relative.  Could the U.S. learn something from Denmark and could Denmark learn something from the U.S.?  What do you think?