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Migrant Lives

Young Swedes Flock To Norway, A Nordic Immigration Flip

In a reversal of economic fortunes, Sweden's under-25s are leaving the high unemployment of their home country to seek more money and secure jobs in Norway.

Heading east
Heading east
Marie Charrel

OSLO — It's 5 p.m. on a November day, and it's already nightfall at Karl Johans gate, Oslo's main shopping artery. Hanna Jonasson tucks a lock of blond hair under her hat and lights a cigarette. A British tourist stops her to ask directions to the National Gallery because he wants to see Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream."

"I believe it's straight on, but I'm not from around here," Jonasson explains before setting off again. In 20 minutes, she starts her shift in a restaurant just a few blocks from here.

"I dropped my CV on the counter, and they gave me a job straight away," says the 19-year-old Swede, who arrived in the Norwegian capital six weeks ago.

She's still amazed at how easy it was. Whereas she was struggling to find a job in Stockholm, she found a serving job here in just two days. On average, she earns 220 Norwegian kroner ($32) an hour, 50% more that she would in her native country. "I still can't believe it," she admits. "In six months, I will have earned enough to go and travel before resuming my studies."

There are thousands of young Swedes like her in Oslo's cafes, bars, shops and museums. All crossed the border to find a better life here, in the country of fjords. According to the Frisch Center, the University of Oslo's economic institute, 20% of Oslo workers aged between 17 and 25 come from Sweden. There were only a handful 20 years ago. In total, Swedes represent 10% of the city's population. "The trend started in the 1990s and developed from 2000," explains Ida Tolgensbakk, a PhD student writing a dissertation on the subject.

Higher wages and guaranteed employment

Of course, exchanges of workers between the two countries, whose languages are very similar, aren't new. "But this time, there's something different," notes Lars Ostby, a demographer for the Norwegian Statistics Institute. "Most of these young Swedes have low-qualified jobs." After a few months or years, many go back to Sweden to finish their studies. But more and more are deciding to stay for good.

Naturally, they're attracted by wages that are 40% to 50% higher than at home, but they are primarily lured by the certainty of finding jobs. Unemployment in Sweden stands at 7.7% overall, but at 23.6% for those under 25. Norway, on the other hand, has been enjoying full employment for the last 15 years. Only 3.7% are unemployed, 7% among workers under 25.

That's not all. The young Swedes say that it's also easier here to obtain senior positions. "Everything goes faster," says Jonathan Zwenger, 26, manager at the cafe chain Deli de Luca. "I went from vendor to being in charge of hiring in just four years. In Sweden, I would have been required to have qualifications in human resources." And for employers, these young recruits are ideal to compensate for the lack of local workforce.

In Frogner, a quiet neighborhood located a few tram stops from the city center, Carl Fredrik Samson finishes his tea in one of the W. B. Samson bakeries, a chain founded by his family 120 years ago. Here, as well as in the 23 shops across the country, 60% of the employees are Swedish. "They know our language and our customs," he says. "It's an undeniable advantage," he explains. The many Polish migrants in Norway don't have that luck, and most of them are relegated to construction sites. "Most of all, these youths are motivated. They left their parents to earn money, and that changes everything," he says.

Young Norwegians don't always have these qualities, employers say. Maybe that's because they don't need to work to pay for their studies. "They're spoiled brats," Jonasson says. "They think these jobs are not for them."

Recruiting en masse

Over the past few years, the trend has become so significant that recruiting agencies especially for these cases have opened. One of them, Hamilton People, brought 5,000 workers to Norway, 4,000 of them from Sweden. Another, Uniflex, even organizes recruitment events in Gothenburg or Stockholm — Sweden's two main cities — for some of its clients. "To help them take the plunge, we even offer them accommodation in Oslo for the first three months," says Christopher Carey, managing director of Uniflex Norway.

Even though Swedish authorities seem to approve, Scandinavian observers believe the trend says a lot about the evolution of the relationship between the two countries. "Norwegians get their coffees served by Swedes now," says Thomas Hylland Erikssen, an anthropologist at Oslo University. "Something has changed in the hierarchy of representations, and not only in that."

For a long time, Norway was almighty Sweden's poor little brother. For centuries, the country belonged to Denmark, before forming a union with the Swedish kingdom and gaining its independence in 1905. After World War II, destroyed by five years of German occupation, Norway turned to its Swedish neighbor for help with reconstruction. "When I was a child, Sweden used to make us dream like the United States made Europeans dream," Erikssen says. "They had ABBA, Volvo, Ikea. We were a bit jealous."

But everything changed with the 1969 discovery of offshore oil fields in the North Sea. In the mid-1990s, while Sweden entered an economic crisis, the economy of its little neighbor was booming. To channel this incredible financial windfall, which today represents 20% of the country's GDP, Norway created a sovereign fund designed to invest part of the benefits abroad. In September 2014, it was worth $893 billion, making it the world's largest ahead of Abu Dhabi's, which is worth $773 billion.

Naturally, Norway and its five million inhabitants quickly reaped the fruits. Between 1999 and 2009, Nowegians' annual earnings after tax increased by $17,000. The GDP per capita caught up with and overcame Sweden's in 1992, now standing at $65,895 against $44,695 in Sweden. "Poor little brother became rich," Erikssen says. "We're the Kuwaitis of the North now, even though some Norwegians still struggle with that reality."

This reversal isn't just in Oslo. Over the last 15 years, shopping malls have mushroomed all along the 1,619-kilometer-long border, on the Swedish side. Every weekend, Norwegians rush there to make the most of the cheaper prices. "When I was a child, it was the other way around," says Britt-Mari Langassen, a 35-year-old engineer who grew up west of Stockholm but now works in Oslo. And she has no intention of going back. "Economic prospects are a lot safer here."

Similarly, the number of cross-border workers has skyrocketed. Swedish hospitals have even been complaining over the past few years that doctors and nurses often go across the border on weekends to earn some more money working extra hours.

But in both countries, some are starting to wonder how long this will last and whether the fall in oil prices and, more importantly, the dwindling of the oil windfall could be a game changer.

Authorities in Oslo are confident that the reserves accumulated by the sovereign fund will eventually help to diversify the economy and that they will also need the Swedish workforce. In Stockholm, they reply that the Swedish industry is a lot stronger and that the start-ups flourishing all over the kingdom will be tomorrow's giants.

The rivalry between the two Scandinavian brothers continues.

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