Compared to the rest of the world, America has made little progress on parental leave. The U.S. is the only high-income country to not have a national parental leave policy. Though certain companies take it upon themselves to provide parents with paid time off, they do so for moral and business reasons, not out of legal obligation. All told, only 12 percent of U.S. workers receive paid leave, a downright embarrassing figure that is best contextualized with data from Scandinavia, where Finnish mothers get 24 weeks of paid leave, Swedish parents get 480 days of leave to divvy up and Norwegian parents get 322 days per parent at full salary.
From across the Atlantic, those programs seem enviable as well as politically and economically untenable. They are expensive and they require a cultural investment in social services that Americans lack. Put a different way, they are built on a consensus on something a bit more specific than the pursuit of happiness: the pursuit of quality of life.
According to George Lakey, an activist and writer activist who dove deep into the inner workings of the Scandinavian economy for his book Viking Economics: How the Scandinavian’s Got It Right — And How We Can Too, a workers-come-first mentality has allowed policymakers in northern Europe to represent the best interests of their constituents in particularly compelling ways. Ultimately, this has made it easier for Scandinavian professionals to prioritize family life, but it has come at a cost. Fatherly spoke to Lakey about what would happen if the United States opted to pony up the money for a new set of more generous programs and how the Swedes and Norwegians were able to reboot the politics of manhood to help moms, dads, and maybe even businesses.
The numbers paint a picture when it comes to parental leave in the U.S. and in Scandinavia. But the policies aren’t just about giving weeks; there have been failed efforts to do so in the U.K. and Japan. Do they really work? Do fathers take the time?
Scandinavians have a deep commitment to equality — a very deep commitment to equality. That started out mainly focused on economic equality. A century ago that was the big push: ‘Let’s have economic equality and not have some people ruling with huge privilege and most people scrambling to make a living.’ The thing about equality is once you really start getting into it, you start seeing other things that are unequal. Gender is right there in everybody’s family and you can’t get away from it.
In Norway for example, when the Women’s Movement was growing, men said, ‘This is a Norwegian thing to do. It is time for us to adjust because we have that heritage of equality. We are not alone, the United States has a value of equality. But because we have taken it so seriously, we should think of it as our Norwegian duty.’ In that case, men didn’t feel like they were under attack; it was an extension of the commitment they had already made to equality.
Your research seems to suggest that equality-first, worker-first thinking actually leads to more productivity and economic growth. That’s a pretty good argument for removing Americans’ noses from the grindstone. Can you explain?
The Nordic economic model came from not only from discussions around working class members, but also academics. There’s a guy named Gunnar Myrdal, who got his economics Ph.D. by contending that the best economies will come out of devotion to the well-being of workers rather than to the well-being of capital. He said, ‘Workers are the most valuable part of an economy. The more positive attention you give to workers, the more it will benefit the economy as a whole.’ That has turned out to be true. The Scandinavian countries outperform the United States in worker productivity. They have more people in their labor force than we do. The economic payoff is enormous when you take that attitude.
It makes sense then that parental leave would be part of that equation.
Once you decide you are going to put workers first instead of capital or profit, then you have to ask: What are the conditions that really support workers? One of the things that strikes you right in the face is the conflict that parents have between the home front and the work front. It was very natural for them to ask how can we reduce that conflict. That way parents could do good work at their workplace and also pay great attention to their families. They also acknowledge that babies are the workers of the future. And they want to give them a good start by making sure that, if both parents are working, they still get great attention.
In Sweden, people can claim parental leave up till age eight. That means giving a great head start to the future workers of their country through good consistent parental attention. Another way that helps: Women are an important part of the workforce, especially in the Nordic countries, and they would feel a special stress if men weren’t taking responsibility for the children. Now they are.
And it seems that these countries have constructed policies in such a way that the men don’t feel forced to take leave, but rather incentivized to do so. Is that fair?
Yes. They don’t force men to do it. I haven’t met anyone over there who thinks that anybody is going to be a good nurse if they are forced to do it. On the other hand, if you say to dads, like they do in Sweden, ‘Look, as a couple, you get a total 16 months to split. You can split it however you want, except it can’t be just 16 months for the women,’ the man has to take at least three months in order to have three months to use it all.
If the man refuses to take those three months, then the total the couple gets isn’t 16 months, it’s 13. That puts a big incentive on the men and it pays off. Men, once they realize this is the deal, they step right up. Some men even go and become the primary parent and take the major responsibility for the children because it works better for the couple.
While things are certainly changing here in the U.S., convincing men to step back from the stereotypical role of the male breadwinner and female caretaker is still a difficult proposition for many. How do these countries frame it so it doesn’t seem at odds with men’s sense of masculinity?
It’s framed as stepping up. A man steps up to take care of children and takes responsibility. It is not seen as a stepping back. Like stepping back from a career or ambition or becoming a smaller man. Instead, it’s seen as expanding into full capacity and stepping into the world into a bigger world. I hate to use these words like ‘bigger,’ but you know what I mean. So it is seen as taking more responsibility.
What would need to be done for such Scandinavian policies to be accepted here in the U.S.?
Well, for one thing, we need to get humble about our economic power. The assumption by people who don’t look at statistics is that America is the best at everything including economic productivity. But we are actually not number one for startups or for economic productivity.Norwegians have a higher startup rate per capita. The Swedes are ahead of us in patents, which is something we always thought we were amazing at. And we are amazing. I don’t want to diminish our achievements. But if we get humble and look at who is outperforming us these days and see Scandinavia, we are forced to consider putting the workers back at the center of our policies.
productive in 35 hours than they are in 40. Fathers are encouraged to really have this work-life balance.
It’s interesting. It’s not unlike Moneyball in that you’re talking about looking at efficient statistics rather than just the big numbers.
Norwegians work fewer hours per year than any other nation in Europe and they are so proud of it.
Both in Norway and in Sweden, there is a kind of competition with social scientists and engineers studying various jobs to see what happens when you take a 40 hour a week job and have the workers do it in 35 hours a week, and at the same rate of pay. What happens to productivity? Often, people are more productive in 35 hours than they are in 40.
There’s policy and there’s the cultural byproduct of the conversation about the policy. How might Americans benefit from a national conversation about paid leave, programs for workers’ families, and the adoption of different expectation around treatment?
I have great grandkids and, through them, I am being invited to be deeply human and nurturing. Through that process of attention, I’ve seen that we need to focus on healing the scars of trauma. So much violence is done by people who have been traumatized and haven’t been given a chance to heal. Feeling less isolated would give us a chance to build our resilience as people who have often been hurt in many ways.
At some point people nurturing others realize they can also nurture themselves. The feedback I get is that dads who do take care of small children stay way more interested in those kids as they get older. The fight for parental leave, in one way of thinking, is a fight for healing.
This interview has been edited and condensed