Anu Partanen


Anu Partanen (born 1975) is a Finnish-born American journalist.

Anu Partanen in 2016



The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life (2016)

  • Trägårdh and his collaborator—a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggre—put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community.
    • Prologue
  • Gradually it dawned on me how much people in America depended on their employers for all sorts of things that were unimaginable to me: medical care, health savings accounts, and pension contributions, to name the most obvious. The result was that employers ended up having far more power in the relationship than the employee. In America jeopardizing your relationship with your employer carried personal risks that extend far beyond the workplace, to a degree unthinkable where I came from.
    • Chapter 1
  • What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.
    • Chapter 2
  • All told, thanks to these various forms of freedom from the old-fashioned logistical dependence on one’s parents, children in Nordic countries have an easier time successfully managing the transition to adulthood. What a disaster, an American might think, that young people could end up on welfare straight out of school.
    • Chapter 3
  • This approach creates fewer strains between family members, because those individuals don’t have to make the sort of extreme sacrifices that can cause them to lose their independence, which so often forces families in America to fall apart—or stops them from forming in the first place.
    • Chapter 3
  • For example, for all the gender equality in Nordic societies, Nordic women are still less likely to work as managers than are American women. So, is the answer for Nordic women to become American-style supermoms, “leaning in” more at the office while also doing full duty as parents?
    • Chapter 3
  • Finally a special committee published its recommendation: Finland should create a unified public school system. Reactions were all over the map. Primary school teachers believed that every student could learn equally well, while university professors tended to be skeptical. Politicians were divided.
    • Chapter 4
  • Because of smart policies, Finland is able to spend less per student than do Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and the United States on all levels, with much better outcomes. The good news for America, though, is that for precisely this reason, Finland is an encouraging example for any country that is facing diminished budgets. [...] One area in which Finns excel is cutting administrative costs. It turns out that Finns did not invent most of the education policies they are currently using. Americans did. Child-centered education, problem solving-based learning, educating people for democratic life—these are all ideas introduced by American thinkers. [...] It doesn’t seem, then, like much of a stretch to suggest that the United States could borrow smart ideas about education from Finland.
    • Chapter 4
  • [...] Markus Jäntti, a Finnish economist at the University of Helsinki, who with his colleagues looked at inherited disadvantage—in other words, how much worse your chances are for success if you’re born into a low-income family. They found that in the United States, 40 percent of men who were born into the lowest income bracket stayed in it. In the Nordic countries, that figure was only 25 percent. [...] America is no longer the land of opportunity, northern Europe is. This is the reality that led the British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband to make his surprising statement in 2012: “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”
    • Chapter 7
  • From the Nordic perspective, it’s not this Nordic approach that is unsustainable—it’s the American approach that’s eventually going to implode. For in the United States more than half of fast-food workers rely on some form of public assistance to get by, meaning that American taxpayers are actually subsidizing the fast-food industry in the United States, to the tune of billions of dollars per year. If we’re hunting for countries practicing socialism, the United States appears to be a pretty strong contender.
    • Chapter 8
  • America’s reign of optimism contributes to a culture in which negative feelings are often unwelcome. [...] As I pondered the question Americans often posed to me—Why aren’t Finns more optimistic, despite their supposedly great society?—I began to turn it around into a different question, a question that seemed to me the more relevant one: How have Finns managed to build such a great society, despite all their negativity? Perhaps the answer is that Finns have built a great society because of their pessimism, not in spite of it. The volume of outrage and complaints that pour out of Finns whenever they perceive an injustice in their society can be annoying—especially when that injustice might be considered minor in other countries. Nevertheless, perhaps this capacity for negative response is part of the secret of Finnish success. Finns are quick to demand real changes that improve their external circumstances.
    • Chapter 9
  • Individualism is one of the great foundations of Western culture. But unless society secures personal independence and basic security for the individual, it can lead to disaffection, anxiety, and chaos. For a long time now the United States has been turning toward its Wild West past, while the Nordic nations have been taking individualism in the logical direction of further progress, and into the future.
    • Chapter 9
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