The social welfare state


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Denmark wasn't starting from scratch in 1945. Compared with other countries, it was relatively well off, its people were offered a highly developed social security net and families were protected by progressive laws. Not least, its democratic traditions were firmly entrenched. The Danish model had survived first the economic crisis of the 1930s and then the German Occupation. But 1945 was the threshold to a new era. Thoughts and ideas that had simmered in the interwar period were now to become a reality. A modern Denmark was to be built.

The perfect society
The most ambitious reformers came to be known as "social engineers". They firmly believed that planning, science and rationalism could create a society that was perfect in every detail. Economists, architects, doctors and other like-minded contemporaries weren't just filled with ideas and plans, they were also eager to see them put into practice. They wanted to improve housing, families, the economy and social security. Denmark was to be modernised from an agricultural country to an industrial society. Inspired by such thinking, the Social Democrats in the early 1950s introduced Denmark to the term "welfare state". The term had already emerged in the US and Britain, but in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries it took on new proportions as it steadily grew into the cradle-to-grave welfare states Scandinavia is renowned for.

Slow beginnings
Hampered by the nation's economic troubles, the first steps were small. Times were tough in 1950s Denmark, and it took almost a decade before the symbols of the new times arrived here. It wasn't until 1959 that Coca-Cola and Elvis Presley albums were available to the general public. It also meant that law makers were hesitant when it came to implementing major welfare reforms, despite their popularity with voters.

The wonder years
But as the 1950s drew to a close, the situation began to change. Industrial production overtook agriculture as the most important export sector, and Denmark finally grabbed hold of the international economic upswing. The 1960s were a period of incredible welfare gains. The combination of an economic boom and an increasing number of two-income families laid the groundwork for a mass-consumption society. Refrigerators, electric cookers, washing machines and television sets became affordable to the masses. Cars, prefabricated homes and the suburbs altered the face of urban development; divorce, sexual education and women in the workplace all changed conditions on the home front.
Whether you look at the growth of social welfare expenses, the size of the public sector or social welfare reforms, the '60s were remarkable. While material wealth skyrocketed, unemployment nosedived and the welfare state progressed ever forward.


The 1950s saw the passage of one reform after another that piece by piece took responsibility out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the hands of the state. The institutions of the social welfare state – nurseries, schools and care centres – sprouted up across the country. Planning and administration were hailed as the solution for the problems of the day. Problems themselves were identified almost before they emerged. Measured in terms of prosperity and welfare, the nation's standard of living and social security had improved drastically.
But not everyone was happy. A current of dissatisfaction ran under the surface of the seemingly perfect society. It might have been what folk singer Cæsar was getting at in his 1966 song about Copenhagen's landmark Stork Fountain: "So normal it oppresses / Bored by your own successes / Our storm of protest this redresses." The storm was beginning to cast a shadow on the country's prosperity.

Revolution and counter-revolution
The 1970s saw a wave of protests roll over Denmark. Young left-wing activists urged people to reject societal norms. The welfare state was to be replaced by a socialist state, a utopian state inspired by Copenhagen hippie colony Christiania or mass communes. On the right, a tax expert named Mogens Glistrup and his Progress Party were in the vanguard of a conservative revolution against welfare and taxes.
It may seem like somewhat of a paradox that in the 1950s Danes sought material and social security, but no sooner had they been handed it then rebellion broke out everywhere. But you could say that social security was prerequisite for protest. What shouldn't be overlooked, however, is that for the vast majority of Danes, life went on. Bigger and bigger houses were built, more cars filled the roads. There was more of everything.

Ever expanding welfare state
There was also more of the welfare state. Public sector growth began in the 1960s, continued through the economic downturn of the 1970s and into the 1980s and their discussions of the neo-liberal society. The expansion filled a growing demand for social welfare services. New hospitals were built, as were new schools and not least new kindergartens – because women were now just as likely as men to be working.

A new Denmark
A Dane who had left Denmark in 1945 and didn't come back until 2010 would return to a country that was both the same and vastly different. Kronborg Castle and Dybbøl Mill still stand as landmarks, but new towns and neighbourhoods have sprung up. Welfare institutions, roads and bridges, have been built. And cars and bikes have conquered the roads. An air of discontent has always accompanied the developments. Some warned Denmark was headed in the wrong direction. Others of the problems of alcoholism and unemployment. And in the past decade or so the question has been whether the Danish welfare state can survive in a globalised world where people and capital freely cross national borders.

For the time being anyway, Danish social welfare has managed to keep itself above water.

Suggested further reading:
Klaus Petersen (red.), 13 historier om den danske velfærdsstat, Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2003
Jørn Henrik Petersen, Lis Holm Petersen & Klaus Petersen (red.), 13 værdier bag den danske velfærdsstat, Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag 2006.