Being a citizen, Danish style

Original Reporting | By Mike Alberti |

Work as central to citizen identity

Being an active part of the labor market has increasingly become part of a citizen’s obligation to society, Abrahamson said. From the end of World War II to the mid-1970s, the Danish government pursued a policy of full employment, which meant that it was the responsibility of the state to guarantee that its citizens had jobs. But after a prolonged bout of unemployment in the 1970s, that responsibility was shifted from the state to the individual, Abrahamson said.

“We began to say that this idea of ‘active citizenship’ means that while it is the state’s responsibility to provide you with education and training, it’s your responsibility to be working and paying your taxes, no matter what your capabilities are, or what the economy looks like, or what kinds of jobs you’re offered,” he said.

Many Danes feel that this shift has contributed positively to the sense of collectivity. “If we want to enjoy this society, then we all need to be working,” said Jørgensen. “That’s only fair.”

“If we want to enjoy this society, then we all need to be working. That’s only fair.”
—Per Jørgensen, college student in Copenhagen

According to most Danish economists, in order to keep the large Danish welfare state in a sound position, fiscally, it’s important that as many people as possible are in the labor market. To that end, Denmark has put in place the most elaborate system of re-employment training in the world, and though the state does not guarantee jobs to citizens, it will often subsidize employers to hire people who are unable to find work on their own.

But Abrahamson believes that this emphasis on work has negative ramifications as well, because it effectively excludes those with less ability to work. “We have placed very high level of demands on people, but there is a segment of society that is not able to fulfill those demands, and so they are effectively marginalized,” he said. “They are not able to fulfill their full potential as citizens.”

Those who remain out of the labor market for a long period of time, either because they have less training or education or because of a physical or mental disability, are not seen by their neighbors as being productive members of society, Abrahamson said, adding that while there is not the same stigma attached to being unemployed in Denmark as there is in the United States, those who are consistently on “the government dole” risk being isolated from the rest of the community.

“The good story is that we are taking care of these people, they are not going hungry,” Abrahamson said. “But they are not really participating in mainstream society and they’re excluded from social contact.”

That shift in social attitude has been mirrored in changes to the welfare system. In the last decade, the right to nine years of unemployment benefits has been reduced to two, and if someone who is unemployed does not accept a job before those two years are up, he or she is thereafter provided with a less generous form of social assistance.

Another example is the rising use of private health insurance to supplement the free public insurance. “You now have one fifth of the population using a private health plan,” Abrahamson said. “It is quickly becoming a two-tiered welfare state, with a high level of protection for those who can be very productive, who are capable of participating fully, and a lower level for those who are not.”

Abrahamson said that he would like to see the government renew its commitment to full employment. “There always needs to be a balance between [citizens’] rights and duties,” he said. “I think we have been erring too far on the side of the duties.”


“Things just work better that way”

While many individual aspects of Danish society can be seen as both reflecting and reinforcing a strong sense of citizenship, Goul Andersen noted that, in practice, the pieces are interconnected. “Because we have this welfare state, that makes it necessary to have a system of civic education,’ he said. “Both of those things depend on trust and equality. Our political system depends on a high degree of trust and consensus between people on fundamental issues. If you remove one piece, you’re in danger of losing that.”

Korsgaard agreed. “Of course, it is all working together,” he said. “You can’t say, this is the reason. It’s much more complicated than that.”

Nevertheless, many Danes do not struggle to answer why they place such a high premium on civic-mindedness. Remapping Debate asked Britta Paulsen, the Copenhagen nurse, why she thinks there is such a big difference between Denmark and the United States in that respect.

“We realized that we can do more as a group than as individuals,” she said. “Things just work better that way, so that is how society was built.”

Citizenship and immigration

Many Danes have expressed concern that the emphasis on work is being appropriated to exclude Denmark’s growing population of immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants — who tend to be less skilled than Danes and are much more likely to be unemployed. Anti-Muslim sentiment has become increasingly common in Denmark in recent years, and is most prominently expressed through the right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP).

In an interview in Copenhagen in July, Morten Messerschmidt, a member of Parliament for the DPP, said, “We are spending too much money on people who do not want to work. Many of the immigrants coming from Muslim countries tend to end up living on welfare. There are variations between cultures and some are more adequate to participate in Denmark than others.”

Korsgaard agreed that rising immigration had put some strain on the Danish conception of citizenship. He added that, among those other political parties, there was a general agreement that the solution was to integrate immigrants into society more effectively.

“Integration is the catchword,” he said. “There is a strong commitment to making sure that, if people don’t speak Danish, or if they don’t have much education, or if they lack computer skills, it’s the responsibility of the state to provide those things.”

“Most Danes don’t accept that preserving our sense of civic duty and collectiveness depends on being a completely homogenous country,” he went on. “I think we in Denmark have learned through our history to develop a sense of fellow citizenship regardless of the changes that are constantly happening. I think we are able to cope with this new trend, too.”


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