The Nordic Model

The Nordic Model

In this theme page, you can find articles, films and podcasts about the Nordic Model. Many people refer to the Nordic Model in different ways. The Economist proclaimed the Nordic countries as the ‘next supermodel’ in 2013 based on their combination of competitiveness and innovation, equality and wellbeing. Democrat contender for President in the US Bernie Sanders is frequently quoted as putting forward what are often referred to ‘socialist’ or ‘social democratic’ policies based on one or more of the Nordic countries. Also outside the Western hemisphere there is discussion about the Nordic countries, such as Nordic cooperation being of particular interest in Asia, for example.

What is the Nordic Model?: the social democratic heyday of the mid-20th century

There is no simple answer to the question ‘What is the Nordic model?’ and, in fact, there are many differences, as well as Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Finnish or Norwegian models. That said, since about 1970, the term ‘the Nordic Model’ has been used to denote some key characteristics that the five Nordic countries have in common.

Most importantly perhaps is the combination of capitalist economies with relatively high levels of taxation and universal welfare benefits, including healthcare.

The political culture is one of multi-party parliamentary democracy dominated by strong social democratic parties and consensus. For example, you can read about political coalitions and parliamentary culture, which is often contrasted with more adversarial ones, such as, in Washington. Similarly, policy-making is more consensual with a greater level of negotiation and collective bargaining between employers and workers via trade unions in the labour market. Corporatism can also be seen in other contexts as well.

During the social democratic heyday of the mid-20th century, the Nordic countries were almost exclusively seen as neutral or 'non-aligned' from a defence point of view. This remains largely true despite Denmark, Norway and Iceland being founding members of NATO in 1949. During the Cold War, they had a unique status between the Eastern and Western blocs. You can read more about this with respect to specifically Norway and Denmark, for example.

These states were also amongst the earliest to introduce lauded measures of open government and are often seen as examples of transparency and lack of corruption with high levels of public trust.

Although many of these aspects still hold true, they hark heavily back to the social democratic heyday in the mid-20th century in the Nordic region.

The Nordic Model eroded since 1990?

It is generally accepted that since the early 1990s the Nordic Model in its traditional sense has been disappearing, or at the very least has been significantly challenged. Various internal and external factorshave been highlighted as the cause for this. Neo-liberalism heralded the individual and market as more important than the old meaning of collectivity and 'the people's home', and the socialist overtures inherent in these old ideas of the Nordic Model are increasingly being shrugged off - for better or for worse. If you would like a more specific example, you can read about how unemployment insurance was tied to trade unions in the ‘Ghent’ Nordic countries. Recently Finland, for example, allowed the setting up of independent insurance schemes.

PICTURE: The Nordic model should not be considered to be the same as a strong state and/or interventionist economic policy. Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki, Finland. Photo: Tapio Haaja, Unsplash.

With respect to Denmark specifically, you can watch a short film (in Danish with English sub-titles) tracking the developing of the welfare state from a tentative start around 1900 to its development as a social democratic project in 1960s. It sets out that the welfare state remains strongly accepted in Denmark even though it is under pressure and its design is continuously debated.

In a short film, Associate Professor from the Centre of Nordic Studies at Helsinki University, Johan Strang gives examples of how the Nordics have moved away from the traditional idea of Nordicity since the end of the Cold War. These include the fact that democracy has become more based on the rights of the individual with the influence of, amongst other things, human rights. He also describes how they have moved away from collective participation and negotiation which was more prevalent during the mid-20th century. There has also been the shift from neutrality to a greater sense of Nordic cooperation around defence. Despite their humanitarian reputation, the production and export of arms has been significant in the Nordic countries (except Iceland). 

Globalisation and the need to keep up with financial markets has also inevitably played a role, and you can read about this from an economic point of view, as well as its impact on society as a whole such as the recent rise of populism.

A more multi-ethnic population is also frequently quoted as a challenge to the Nordic Model. While this can be deeply problematic as it can lead to assumptions that racial homogeneity was a factor in the ‘success’ of the Nordic Model, the increase in multiculturalism must not be overlooked.

The use of the ‘Nordic Model’ for political means: a varying concept

Bernie Sanders refers to the Nordics to give a concrete idea of future (some say socialist) policy ideas. Macron refers to the Nordics to give a concrete idea of future policy ideas where the state embraces neo-liberalism. Fox TV news presenter Trish Regan refers to Denmark as a socialist country like Venezuela and therefore not to be emulated under any circumstances. The White House report 'The Opportunity Costs of Socialism' heavily criticizes socialism and aspects of the Nordic Model in particular. Some economists criticise the Nordics as they do not resemble the 'textbook' model of efficiency with large public sectors, with extensive and generous welfare systems, a high level of taxation and considerable state involvement. What is one then to believe?

The term the Nordic Model should be used with caution as it can apparently mean many different things leading the renowned Finnish historian Pauli Kettunen describing the Nordic model as a single model with five exceptions. Listen to a podcast discussing the myriad of ways the Nordic model has been seen and used over the last century: The Nordic Model: Heaven or Hell?

Here is a list of articles, in the order that they have been published, that are to do with the Nordic Model theme:

The building where Norwegian Labour Party headquarters is housed in Oslo, built in 1935. Photo: Emmanuel Wald. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

2020.09.07 | Article, Even Lange, Nation building

The Golden Age of social democracy in Norway

The Norwegian Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet) was in power when the country was transformed into a wealthy society with modern welfare in the decade following the Second World War. However, the other parties supported major parts of the social democratic project as well. Reform-driven policy, planned modernisation and rapid economic growth were key…

Election in Norway in 1945, where the man in the middle represents The Labour Party [Arbeiderpartiet], and the woman on the right supports The Conservative Party [Høyre] Source: The Norwegian National Library. Public Domain.

2020.08.19 | Article, Even Lange, Nation building

The development of the Norwegian welfare state, 1945-1970

The vision of a welfare community that provided the people with social security from ‘cradle to grave’ was largely realised in the period between 1945 and 1970. The development of a Norwegian welfare state was part of broader international commitments to meet the need for social security in a modern society – with roots dating back to the late…

2020.07.17 | Video, Byron Zachary Rom-Jensen, Region-building, Nation building, Public policy

Film: The Nordic Model: A Complex Concept

The Nordic Model’ is a concept that appears frequently in scholarship, media reports, and public debates to refer to the socio-political organization and progressive values of the Nordic countries. While the concept has been applied since at least the 1980s, it lacks a standard definition and thus is open to variation and alteration. The term has…

Helsingør in Denmark is only 6 km from the coast of Sweden & sits on the Oresund, a narrow strait for ships that have travelled to/from the Baltic sea for centuries. Picture:colourbox.

2020.07.07 | Podcast, Anders Ravn Sørensen, Kazimierz Musiał, Larisa Kangaspuro, Lizaveta Dubinka-Hushcha, Mads Mordhorst, Michael Bennedsen-Hansen, Nicola Witcombe, Norbert Götz, Nation building

Podcast: The Nordics and Identity

From the outside, it is assumed that the populations of the Nordic countries are fairly homogeneous and that there is a relatively high level of gender equality and acceptance of different sexualities and diversity. In short, identity is not much of a problem. On closer examination, however, there are similar tendencies to elsewhere, such as more…

The website is based at Aarhus University and is a part of the University Hub Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World (ReNEW).

2020.05.19 | Podcast, Jørgen Fink, Nation building, The Borders of the Nordics

Podcast: The reunification of Denmark, 1920

Listen to a potted history of the reunification of Denmark in 1920 in either English or Danish! This is the first of several podcasts where existing material on is read out in assorted languages by colleagues and friends. Great for learning Danish or English. / Lyt til historien om Danmarks genforening i 1920 på engelsk eller dansk!…

A Danish electionposter from 1920 saying 'Vote for Denmark: We are Danish, we think and feel Danish. One day, what is right will happen.' Similar nationalistic german posters circulated at the time. Drawn by Rasmus Christiansen. Source: Rigsarkivet, CC BY-SA 2.0.

2020.05.05 | Article, Jørgen Fink, Nation building, The Borders of the Nordics

The reunification of Denmark in 1920

The reunification of Southern Jutland with Denmark was made possible in 1920 with the German defeat in the First World War. It took place in June 1920 after a process that in fact started with Germany's admission of defeat in October 1918 and its ensuing request for an armistice. The reunification followed a plebiscite in the concerned areas. In…

Södertörn University just outside Stockholm, where the podcasts were recorded at the Institute of Contemporary History.

2020.04.15 | Podcast, Andreas Mørkved Hellenes, Byron Zachary Rom-Jensen, Carl Marklund, The Nordic Model, Nation building

Podcast: The Nordic Model: Heaven or Hell?

Since the interwar years, foreign observers have regularly portrayed the Nordic countries as well functioning states, successful in solving crises, with happy populations; in short as good societies. Why did this happen? Are the Nordic countries the way they are simply because they are in a relatively safe corner of the world? Because they have…

Varying histories and democratic traditions are perhaps some of the reasons why Denmark, Finland and Norway have reacted differently to covid-19 - and why Sweden has had a completely distinctive approach. (Note that this map only shows the Nordic countries referred to in the article.) Photo:

2020.04.06 | Outlook, Johan Strang, Public policy, Nation building

Why do the Nordic countries react differently to the covid-19 crisis?

Given the striking similarity of the Nordic societies, it is interesting to note how differently some of them have reacted to the current covid-19 crisis. For example, Denmark and Norway were quick to implement a work and school lockdown and close their borders. In contrast, Sweden has raised international interest with a comparatively lax…

Non-standard employment such as part‐time or temporary work and low‐skilled service jobs have grown over the last couple of decades, and, they have become more uncertain, unpredictable and risky in terms of job and income security in recent decades.

2020.03.19 | Article, Young-Kyu Shin, Petri Böckerman, Research, Public policy, The Nordic Model

Trade union-administered unemployment benefit and precarious workers in Finland

The Nordic countries have some of the highest trade union rates of membership in the world. This has by some been attributed to unemployment insurance being largely administered by trade unions. Since around 1910, unemployment insurance in the Nordic countries Denmark, Finland and Sweden has been based on a voluntary system (‘Ghent’), rather than…

2020.03.17 | Video, Johan Strang, Research, The Nordic Model

Interview: The Nordics: developments in politics and society since 1990

In this short video, Johan Strang, Associate Professor at the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of Helsinki compares the social democratic heyday of the mid-20th century in the Nordics with trends in politics and society since 1990. While some commentators apply the ‘socialist’ label to aspects of both these wide-ranging and complex time…

Showing results 1 to 10 of 28

1 2 3 Next

Further reading

  • Erik Einhorn and John Logue, Modern Welfare States: Scandinavian Politics and Policy in the Global Age (New York: Praeger, 2003)
  • Francis Sejersted, The Age of Social Democracy. Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century, translated Richard Daly, edited Madeleine B Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)
  • Mary Hilson, Silke Neunsinger and Iben Vyff, eds., Labour, Unions and Politics under the North Star: The Nordic Countries 1700-2000 (Oxford: Berghahn, 2017)
  • Mary Hilson, The Nordic Model since 1945 (London: Reaktion Books, 2008)
  • Nik Brandal, Øivind Bratberg and Dag Einar Thorsen, The Nordic Model of Social Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)
  • Øystein Sørensen and Bo Stråth, eds., The Cultural Construction of Norden (Oslo: Scandinavian University Press, 1997).