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Have the Norwegians got it right?

Norwegian flag over the water

As a prominent blogger in Norway I receive a lot of questions by email. Generally these are from people keen to move to Norway, many from countries with severe economic problems such as Greece and Spain. But many are just intrigued at how Norway consistently tops the “highest standard of living” polls year after year.

One such email came from Carol, a British lady who like me two years ago, was growing frustrated with life in the UK. She asked:

Norway is listed as having the highest standard of living in the world. Would you say that has been your experience? What does this mean to ordinary people living in the country? For instance, is the income level of the lowest paid much closer to the income level of the highest paid than in the UK?

Can everyone afford decent housing, recreation, good health care, good education, a holiday every year? I am growing increasingly frustrated with the inequalities of life in the UK and wonder if the Norwegians really have got it right?

What a great question! Well actually it's five questions, but I'm treating it as one!

First things first, yes, I can understand why Norway sits atop the standard of living charts. Unemployment is low. One primary reason for this is the massive public sector. Not only is it big, it's spread around the country too.

A foreigner who pays advance tax to Norway? You deal with Stavanger. Your tax return? It's sent to Mo i Rana. Registering a business? It's processed in Brønnøysund. Without the jobs provided by the state, people in smaller towns and rural settlements would struggle.

If you are unlucky enough to lose your job (and it is difficult to get fired here), the state will pick up the tab. New mothers are entitled to 46 weeks off with full-pay or 56 weeks off with 80% pay, plus time off if their child is sick.

Wages and working conditions in Norway

Wages are high in Norway, but outside the oil industry it's only really noticeable at the lower end. You can expect to earn at least £12-15 an hour for even the most basic work – double the UK's minimum wage. Although there is no legal minimum wage here, trade unions (of which a high proportion of people are members) negotiate these collective deals. Graduates can find starting salaries of at least NOK 300,000, but as you make your way “up the ladder”, your salary is likely to follow set guidelines. The gap between rich and poor is definitely smaller here.

Norwegians are also blessed with 25 days holiday per year in the vast majority of jobs, not including the 8-12 public holidays. Many take at least three weeks off in July, something which is permitted in many employment contracts. Although it's a myth that all Norwegians own a summer house, mountain cabin or boat, many can afford at least one foreign holiday a year thanks to the strong currency – earning in the Norwegian krone gives you great purchasing power in Spain, Turkey, and pretty much anywhere else in the Med.

So why can't other countries copy Norway?

It's really not as simple as that. For two main reasons.

Firstly, oil. Norway struck it lucky in the late 60s by finding huge reserves of oil under the North Sea. Their decision to funnel the profits into a national investment fund has proved wise, as it's now one of the biggest investment funds in the world. This gives Norway the financial backing that the rest of Europe lacks.

Secondly, people. Norway's population is growing rapidly, but it's still only 5 million. Compare that with 65 million in the UK, 350 million in the USA and even 9.5 million in neighbouring Sweden, and you start to understand that Norway has more money than most, with less people needing a share.

With more money and less people – a high standard of living is easier to achieve.

So Carol, I hope that answers your question. To everyone else – I'm expecting a whole heap of disagreement, so get on with it in the comments below 🙂

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34 thoughts on “Have the Norwegians got it right?”

  1. I think your spot on with the smaller divide between rich and poor. The starting salary here in Norway is excellent. I think your salary here over time tends to increase in much smaller steps than compared with the UK. Its hardly a complaint however since the starting salary is high.
    I think most can afford to stretch their money much better here, I find that most are very good at managing their finances and are very aware of how much they pay for things such as food or services. It can be quite frustrating going shopping with a norwegian!! I was used to just throwing whatever into the shopping basket in the UK but you have to be more tuned in here otherwise you get a nasty shock at the check out!

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  2. I get the same emails from similarly frustrated Americans wondering what my Norwegian experience has been. I was going to pen a similar post in response. You just saved me the trouble. Very clear. Will certainly use in my response from now on. 🙂

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  3. I agree with your post, but think there is more to be said to answer her questions: ‘Can everyone afford decent housing, recreation, good health care, good education, a holiday every year? ‘
    Speaking as an immigrant living in Trondheim for 6 mths so far, in Trondheim at least, and Oslo too I believe, housing/renting is pretty expensive. However if you are sharing a flat or are in a family where both parents work (which is mostly the norm), you can live very comfortably (on two incomes). If you live further out in rural areas houses are much cheaper. In the cities, while houses are warm and heating them is one of the few things here that are cheap, most people live in fairly small apartments – but I guess this is the same in parts of the UK too. It is horrendously expensive to renovate your home though – especially kitchens and bathrooms, mainly because of the high wages paid to tradespeople, if I understand correctly.
    Recreation – it depends what you want to do. If you like outdoors activities of any kind (and don’t mind 6 months of ice and snow), many are available and often cheaply accessed – walking, cross-country skiing, ice skating, camping…on the other hand things like swimming or going to the movies are quite pricey.
    I have heard mixed views about healthcare here – some people say the waiting lists for surgery are too long, but you get that in a number of western countries. I am not sure that private health insurance is possible?
    A good education? Again debatable, Norwegians aren’t particularly worried about focusing on too much reading/writing/maths when children are young – too many outdoors activities to do instead! Very few private schools but good equality at state schools, however students perform averagely compared with rest of OECD on international tests in reading (PISA) and maths (TIMMS). But then, unemployment is so low here that students don’t really have to worry, do they? 😉 A big bonus is that university education is free, with a student allowance as well (thanks to all that oil money).
    I guess I’m just saying that while there are some great things here, and Norwegians have a good lifestyle and know it, it’s not a perfect place. Is anywhere??

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    • Good question! This is far from a perfect society, but what is a better place and why? 🙂
      This is a topic for a looong discussion!

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  4. Elucidative text, David! Sometimes I wonder things could be done differently in Brazil where we also have found a great oil reserve, but we are talking about 200 millions of people, so very hard to make work the same formula here, though it would be great to see us becoming as social commited as Norwegians are.
    Med vennlig hilsen!

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  5. Sure, it’s pretty easy to say that everyone is “equal” here. But frankly my experience has been that this comes at a price. For example, just because everyone has access to the healthcare system doesn’t mean that the care is necessarily high quality. I’ve had a horrible experience with the public health system in Stavanger for something as simple as a thyroid problem. A friend who is Norwegian has told me about botched procedures she experienced. I have heard other reports of this as well. So be careful about coming to Norway because you think the grass is greener. The system may be equal but it is far from perfect.

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    • Quality of health care is not up to the highest standards unlike what most Norwegians tend to think. (I have never experienced a doctor’s visit where the doctor does not look at you at all, writes out a prescription and sends you off in 5 minutes time.) Private sector is poorly developed, limited and again – very expensive. There is a growing trend for Norwegians to seek treatment abroad – it is often better and chaper.

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  6. A few things I think is worth mentioning as they say something about cultural attitudes:
    – Baby-leave isn’t only for mums; in fact, dad has to take minimum 10 of those weeks off (and this share is likely to increase). It isn’t accepted that dad doesn’t do his part because his job is too important. This can be difficult to handle for CEOs/managers coming from a different culture.

    – As for salaries, they are, as you point out, quite compressed, reflecting attitudes to power distance. CEOs make about 4 times as much as manufacturing workers, as opposed to e.g. Brazil, where the relationship is 1:57. Jens, the PM, makes ‘only’ about 1.36 mill kroner (ca. £150 000).

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  7. It’s true that you can make good money in Norway but you’d have to – because it’s also one of the most expensive places in the world to live in. I like Norway, have been visiting every year for most of my life (my father was Norwegian). But as much as I like visiting I think it’s not exactly the most exciting place on earth to live in. If one wants to live in a ‘village’-society it’s nice but a lot of people would be bored living there. But yes, definitely beautiful to visit.

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    • That is right, the place is boring and expensive, with a reigning ignorant peasant mentality. Not bad for a summer visit, if ur lucky enough to catch some good weather. Summers here could be quite rainy.

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  8. I agree that Norway’s Oil reserves certainly contribute to the overall wealth and welfare of the population; however, there is more to the story. The middle east is perhaps best-known for its oil-wealth and while there are a few very rich sheiks the rest of the region lives in third-world poverty. A less obvious example is the United States, a country which holds 25% of the world’s wealth in a highly inequitable distribution: more billionaires than any other country and millions impoverished, statistics skewed even further when race is considered. The U.S. has also discovered vast oil reserves, the profits of which will certainly NOT create a sovereign wealth fund for the welfare of the people as in the case of Norway but only further enrich Big Oil C.E.O.s. It’s not only the resources, it’s the willingness and capability of the government to manage it properly.

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    • Very well said, as in a week and living in the United States for 30 years, I must agree that is the main thing. Wealt management for society as a whole. The question is who owns the oil in the ground or the coal. Does it belong to the country or to whoever is willing to pay the $5,000 fee to get the drilling rights.

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    • Except that… in Alaska, they did set up a fund, similar to Norway’s, that is well run and shares the wealth. Unlike Norway’s paternalistic model, Alaska provides fewer public services, and instead sends everyone monthly payments, to spend, invest, or waste as they see fit.

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    • Thank you for saying that! I am an American and I must say that the main problem we have is the inequitable distribution of wealth. This is very much a cultural thing. From what I’ve heard about Norway, to show how rich you are, or worse, to brag about it, would be a major social faux pas! Would it were so in America!

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  9. Interesting conversation. But what is it in Norwegian society – and how did it come about? – which allows such successful redistributionist policies? I certainly agree with Dan that in a sense the USA represents the antithesis (under either Republican or Democract regimes (since Jimmy Carter).

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  10. Hi, my boyfriend got a job in Norway and is due to move in a month. I’m four months pregnant and I’ll be forced to stop working due to the nature of my job sometime in Dec-Jan. I’m worried if he will have enough money left to cater for me and baby’s needs (considering high standards of living in Norway ) and also if they will allow him to take time off to come for the baby’s birth. we are both Kenyan currently living in Nairobi.

    Thanks!!

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    • You should ask the employer, yes. When it comes to him getting time off for being there for the birth, though, that’s almost guaranteed. I have never heard of any boss here who wouldn’t allow that. Maybe his collegues would throw him a spontaneous “office party” the next time he returned aswell.

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  11. Time will tell how successful this attempt (of get it right) will be and how will develop, and that pretty soon I belive.Idealists and dreamers tend to see just the nice image and disregard laws of nature and physics,let’s see how that works when Mother nature (which is not cruel or benevolent,just indiffernt and doing her thing : “evolution” ) will “call the bet” and “pay off”…..Maybe it’s time to reconsider starting from a few facts:
    -when your economy depends on the oil industry for almost a quarter of its economic output and even worse when that oil industry accounts for more than half of country’s exports ,that start to look pretty much like a third world economy (even if you redistribute the income)
    -when you have a constant inflow of immigrants that end up at some point (not all of them ofcourse) on social security and in the same time you consider rising the taxes do you belive that will last and how long?
    -when you have a real estate bubble and more than 25% norwegians have a debt of 5 mil. NOK or more you might have a problem
    -when you are an oil producer and in the same time you have the world’s most expensive gasoline…..that’s odd
    -when you know that the oil boom is over,the cost of developing new fields are steadily rising (Pioneer, Scarabeo 5, and Songa Trym rigs ,will be susupended until the middle of 2015 because of lower profitability) and you smash the fishing industry(that was doing pretty well i might add) cutting the ties with major markets (China and Russia) ,that’s at least strange (inflicting pain on your own citizens for what?)
    -when you have small cities royally screwed because they bought “Mortgage Backed Securities” (most of them part of subprime collections) sold by american financial consultants and that with borrowed money of future generation revenues,maybe,just maybe you have some issues…….
    So ,for a balanced evaluation and judgemenet on a long term, lot of factors need to be considered ,not just a glamorous image and a temporary situation.Otherwise ,Norway is a very beautiful country and people here just want to live their lives as they see fit,let’s see if they will be allowed to do that……….

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  12. How and what’s the status of immigrants in Norway…are they refugees or what?

    Can a tourist stay back in the country if found interesting and the tourist visa be converted to resident permit?

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  13. Just joining in… enjoying the reading, and (hopefully) getting closer to my ancestry 🙂
    My dad’s dad did SO much research and I have come to love my heritage …be seeing you! <3

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  14. Hi, thanks for the clarity of the article and the subsequent comments. I also moved to Norway, following my Norwegian husband and hoping the economical situation would give us more quality time together. We previously lived in Italy and before in Ireland, so I have ground for making comparisons and Norway is far from the best place to live in. Relatively speaking and if you come from a less developed country, maybe then you’d see Norway greatly advantageous. But coming from anywhere else in western Europe, no I don’t think so.
    “Can everyone afford decent housing, recreation, good health care, good education, a holiday every year?” to answer all in one, and surely creating disagreement: no. If you are a couple living together on two salaries yes you can afford a decent accommodation, note local taxes are 4 times more than in Italy for example, but let’s not go into taxes here. Recreation? Well as someone else said it depends on what you need and want: nature is free and there is plenty of it, but when it comes to restaurants, clubs, cinemas, theaters, museums etc just forget it: choice is minimal, mediocre quality and awfully expensive, so that’s your answer to that! Health system is free of charge, so it is in most European countries, however due to the geographic challenges in such a big country, you likely have to get on a plane to go to a big enough (University) hospital for surgery, therefore being away from the care and vicinity of your family for the duration of your hospital stay, which I personally find a little disturbing being used to choose among several hospitals to go to in a range of 1 hour drive from Milano for instance. Family doctors you would have to pay about 30€ per visit, which is free in Italy for example. Whether the quality is higher, for sure from an infrastructure and equipment point of view yes they have the latest technology available, but not sure doctors skills are at the same level, but luckily I can not speak out personal experience.
    Good education? Oh well, here is a big statement. Again if we want to discuss how much money is poured into the education system and the fact that the vast majority are public schools, hence free of charge, no doubt Norway scores very high: school building are constantly maintained and renewed, pupils can avail of the latest information technology etc, but quality of education is totally another thing. My children moved here at the age of 9, 10 and 13 and it feels like they are still repeating what they learned years ago (which exclusion of Norwegian language of course) but the most shocking of all is the fact that they are not allowed to “rate” performance before they are 13. Everybody must be “good” even if they are not, there is no competitiveness, hence to stimulation to do better. Astonishingly little reading and not at all writing text exercises. “To study” consists in reading at maximum 4 pages (with pictures), even if the topic is the 2nd wold war! mathematical level of a 12 year old is far below what I was accustomed to. I can only speak for primary and secondary education. In addition to that, school days are shorter, no canteens, everybody must bring food from home, at age 9 they finish at 2 and go home alone to sit and wait for they’re parents to return form work (no after school facilities after age 9), while from 1st to 4th class schools offer after school from 13.30 to 16 for 300€/month. So much for a rich country!
    As per holidays, I reckon it is the same as in all other countries: some people seem to have a huge holiday budget which they spend around the world, other people go camping in the nearby fjord, or as far as Sweeden.

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  15. You seem to have forgotten the issue of COST OF LIVING and the purchasing power of that good Norwegian salary. On a recent trip to Oslo we found ourselves paying astronomical prices for just about everything. Even the gas price was outrageous (the equivalent of $1.70 PER LITER) despite the sea of oil that Norway apparently swims in. The price of beer? A pint will set you back by the equivalent of $10 (yes, 10 Dollars) – I think the government is gently!? nudging people to give up drinking.
    Hotels? Well, we nearly resorted to a second mortgage to finance that, and so on.
    The fjords are nice, though

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    • Hi Charles, the cost of living is dealt with in many, many articles on the website. This article really wasn’t about that, or about the price of things for visitors. We all know the beer is expensive but no one makes you drink on vacation – and there are many cheaper alternatives to hotels (cabins, hostels, campsites, guest houses, AirBnB) – to travel to Norway and then moan about the cost is like going for a run and then complaining that you’re tired 🙂

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      • lol, yeah but we all like to moan and that’s okay, and yes, even if I enjoyed the run I would still moan about it 🙂 human nature and it actual helps hearing about the expensive pint of beer that everyone likes to enjoy so their comment was well received on this end as yours.

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      • dont have to drink beer on vacation? HOSTELS?!? Youre ridiculous! After the Trump comment about Norway, and the subsequent glamorization of Norway, Ive been reading all day. Norway sounds like a socialist shithole, free poor quality healthcare, free poor quality education, expensive everything. In fact I remember meeting some Norwegian tourists and they just complained about how expensive their country is. The goverment there taxes half your income and taxes everything they dont want you to do, like own a car or drink alcohol. Cold, bored and not much extra money for anything, but you can ensure that your misery will be extended to old age by the “free healthcare” and welfare state.

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        • I’m ridiculous? I would suggest that the person who claims they’ve spent “all day” researching Norway and then concludes that income tax is 50% is the ridiculous one… 🙂 Start here: Norwegian tax for beginners. And if health and education is so poor, why would Trump like to see the unhealthy, uneducated Norwegians moving to the USA?

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  16. Hi David, I am planning on moving to Norway with my Norwegian husband in 2017. The first post in this feed that you wrote is now over three years old. Any changes to your views. from what I understand norwegians are very happy living in Norway. I am Australian but moved to Uk 25 years ago and managed to acclimatise myself to the culture here after a few years. I think moving from Uk to Norway will be a bigger jump but am trying to have an open mind about it but still a bit nervous. I get the impression that Norwegians are a little more reserved that Brits and Australians when it comes to making new friends. Is that correct? I think you can be happy anywhere if you have a few good friends. And are you fluent in Norwegian yet as I have found that everyone speaks English so well it is harder to practice my Norwegian. Very interested in hearing your views. Thanks.

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    • Yes it will take a lot longer to make friends here, but learning Norwegian and getting involved in social activities, volunteer associations etc will help. It is hard to practice Norwegian but you have to join a class to get the structure and pretend you don’t speak English to force yourself to practice when out and about. Good luck!

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  17. Hi David thanks for the interesting and informative answer that you have posted.

    I came across your post due to a search I am doing in relation to finding out about an announcement I heard somewhere that Norway is piloting a project whereby all residents of Norway will be paid a minimum living wage?

    Is the foregoing correct? If yes can you suggest where I continue my research?

    Your statement on money investment is very interesting, Shetland implimented a similar scenario.

    I believe that the international monetary system has got to be changed, it never has worked, and it never will. With computerisation and robotics the number of jobs is drastically reducing, and I think that growth in this trend will be exponential.

    So less jobs and more people something must change, one way would be to pay everyone a minimum wage, in return for which participation in say, continued education, helping society, looking after the environment, and participating in the arts etc. would be a mandatory requirement.

    Businesses would still be required and would function as normal, jobs that are uneffected by computerisation and robotics would still require manning and should therefore be awarded a higher pay scale.

    Finance, energy, food production, environmental protection, and security are worldwide issues, and need to be addressed and solved by all of the worlds leaders, unfortunately progress in this is abysmal.

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  18. Norwegians have a vast Hydro electric system so the switch to renewables should be easy .
    I have heard of some farmers earning more from their Hydro generation on their farms….than other farm income.

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