Swedish Migrant Workers and Norwegian Oil Wealth Have Reversed the Centuries-Old Scandinavian Power Dynamic

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 11 2012 4:38 PM

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.

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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.

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