The number of Swedes who are now working in Norway has doubled in the past 10 years, after many failed to find work at home. A young Swedish film director suggests his generation now sees Norwegians as masters with the Swedes as their servants, and that’s sparked discussion over the changing power balance between the two neighbouring nations.
“Sweden has always seen itself as big brother (to Norway) and will gladly continue to be big brother,” Matilda Andersson, a journalist at Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend. She and a photographer were sent to Oslo late last week to explore relations between Swedes and Norwegians after Aftenposten’s Friday magazine had a cover story headlined “Masters and servants: They come and take our jobs. Isn’t that nice?”
The story was in part based on the upcoming premiere in Norway of director Ronnie Sandahl’s film about Swedes in Norway, Svenskjævel, which literally translates to “Swedish devil.” The film has been given the name Underdog in English, though as A-Magasinet pointed out, it’s not clear whether that applies to the Swedes or the Norwegians.
In one dinner party scene from the film, some affluent Norwegians around the table are chatting about how good it is to see the once-superior Swedes working as waiters and cleaning help for Norwegians. Asked how a Swedish labour migrant who’s also a guest at the dinner sees it, she replies: “We think of you as handicapped cousins who have won the lottery.”
That might sum up relations at present, but researchers say it’s not so simple. The old stereotype of so-called “Party Swedes” who’d come to Norway to work hard, play hard and earn a lot in a concentrated period, possibly to finance a year off on a beach in Thailand, is now outdated. Swedes have become the second-largest immigrant group in Norway after people from Poland, and many who now arrive plan to stay and build a new life for themselves in Norway.
Debunking the old gold-digger myth
“There is an old gold-digger myth about the Swedes that’s isn’t completely true,” Anders Underthun of the state labour research institute Arbeidsforskningsinstituttet told A-Magasinet. He has interviewed Swedes working in a warehouse in Oslo and his impression is that they’re serious and hard-working and needed to come to Norway to find work.
Researcher Christer Hyggen of the welfare research institute NOVA agrees. “We haven’t found any ‘Party Swedes,’ only Swedes from small places n Sweden who had no possibility to earn money at home,” Hyggen said.
Underthun said many Swedes grow frustrated because they don’t quickly get permanent full-time jobs in Norway, and can’t immediately launch the careers they’d envisioned. Many stay, though, and contribute to the changing power balance between Norway and Sweden, says researcher Ida Tolgensbakk. She has written a doctoral thesis on Swedes in Norway as a cultural study.
“We (Norwegians) allow ourselves some bullying and jokes about the Swedes because we think we’re kicking upwards,” Tolgensbakk told A-Magasinet. “Stockholm has always been cooler than Oslo, Sweden has been the Nordic locomotive, more glamourous, bigger and better. But this is changing. I think the mass immigration of Swedes is confusing relations between Norway and Sweden.”
Some peg the change to the murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, which occurred at about the time Norway’s oil wealth was seeping into Norwegian society as a whole. Then came all of Norway’s gold medals at the Olympics in Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994.
“We have a sort of post-colonial attitude towards Sweden, rather like ‘The Empire strikes back,'” muses Professor Thomas Hylland Eriksen at the University of Oslo, who is quoted in Sandahl’s new film. “When I grew up, the Swedes had Björn Borg, Ingemar Stenmark, ABBA, Volvo and Ikea. Norwegians had a lot of fish. Now the relation between Norway and Sweden has ‘destabilized,’ as we say here at the university.”
The Swedes interviewed by Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet didn’t see themselves as servants and the Norwegians as their new masters, though. “We’re just here so that we can eventually take over the country,” laughed one young Swede working at Oslo’s airport at Gardermoen.
There was nonetheless an underlying seriousness in the interviews, many Swedes eager to adapt to their new country spoke Norwegian even to the Swedish journalists, and admitted they needed the work. Several also told A-Magasinet that they found the work culture in Norway very different from Sweden’s. “Swedes don’t take their jobs for granted … Norwegian workers are very comfortable, and very clear over their rights,” one young Swedish woman working at Ikea in Oslo said. She didn’t exactly approve, after being taught that “you can’t make demands without giving something back.”
Sandahl still thinks Norwegians are viewed by his generation of fellow Swedes as “rich folks you can get jobs from.” He also told A-Magasinet that he thinks Norway “has saved a whole generation of Swedish youth” who would have gone jobless and been a “lost generation.” He added, though, that “fortunately all empires fall. It’s a question of time before everything goes to hell (in Norway) too. In 20 years, maybe (the Norwegians) will be washing toilets for the Russians.”