Improved Living Standards, Social Security, Class and Education

As sons and daughters of workers, small farmers and fishers, often with many siblings in cramped quarters, almost all of our informants in the oldest generation described a childhood with material standards very far from what their grandchildren had come to consider an ordinary standard of living. They emphasised that they did not starve, but in their detailed memories—kept through more than half a century—of what they ate at the different meals of the day and often also the exact prices for everyday groceries, we can see a reflection of life circumstances where food and clothing and the money to buy them were not taken for granted. For this generation of working-class and rural children, sufficient food and clothing and parents striving to provide this equalled a good childhood. Mothers who became widows had to manage both household and work for money outside, as there was no social security at that point other than the socially degrading poor relief fund. Class differences were prominent, both economically and culturally. However, belonging to the middle class did not necessarily entail much economic security either. In cases where the father died early, the mother often had to take unskilled paid work out of pure necessity.

The twentieth century saw a rapid increase in living standards. During the first decades of the new century in Norway, the threat of mass poverty was replaced by a basic social security (Kjeldstadli 1994: 96). The improved living conditions led to better public health. The height and weight of children went up, and class differences in children and young people’s physical growth and development gradually disappeared. Yet, income differences between the social classes increased until the Second World War. Norway was neutral during the First World War and was occupied during the Second World War.

Compared to what children in many other countries experienced, relatively few Scandinavian children had absent fathers because of the wars or saw them injured or killed.[1] The deep sense of loss and separation found in other countries in this generation of children (Chodorow 2000; Brannen 2015) is not present in the narratives of those of our informants who grew up during the war. More of the men than the women in our study took part in the resistance movement or remember dramatic episodes. The women mention their fear of German soldiers and especially the Gestapo, that things were closed down or taken over by the Nazis, that it was a boring time to be young and that there was a severe lack of food and clothing. During the German occupation, the development of the new welfare state that had started in the mid-1930s came to a halt. After the war all social institutions had to be rebuilt and many commodities were rationed into the 1950s.

As in the rest of Europe, there was a rapid increase in living standards from the 1950s, which was in the beginning still within norms of modesty and savings in daily life. From 1950 to 1970, private consumption tripled and differences in income among various groups of people were greatly reduced (Lange 1998). The informants in the middle generation do not talk about the question of whether they had enough food when they describe the living conditions of their childhood, but remember the fashionable clothes they yearned for that could only be granted on special occasions like birthdays or Christmas. Tight economy is, however, not remembered as a permanent state. In this generation, everybody, except children of single or divorced mothers, recalls how much better off their family became during the 1960s and they have vivid recollections of how new consumer goods continuously arrived in the family: electric cookers, washing machines, refrigerators, transistor radios, tape-recorders, TVs and finally even a car for dad! The stories are filled with details about when their families got these commodities compared with other families, but the later they are born, the less they talk about this. It had become the normal state of affairs.

Not only did private consumption go up as the middle generation came of age, but so too did state-provided public services like health care, education and care services for children, the ill, the disabled and the elderly. The Nordic welfare states were gradually developed from the mid- 1930s. In Norway the first laws about unemployment benefits, paid sick leave and retirement benefits were introduced in the 1930s, in addition to work hour regulation, paid holiday and laws about worker protection. After the war, in the 1940s, came the child benefit for all families, the educational loan fund for students and cheap housing loans to buy apartments in the new suburbs; in the 1950s full retirement schemes for all; and in the 1960s support for single mothers and disability benefits. The whole system of national security was fully established by 1970. Along with a progressive taxation system, this led to less poverty and social inequality in the Nordic societies than in other countries (Korpi 2000). This is also some of the background for class journeys of this period being experienced as less dramatic than in countries with larger class and income differences. The period from 1935 to 1970 has been described as a period dominated by social consensus in Norway, as a period of integration and gathering around common goals (Lange 1998). As one of our informants, born in 1947, said: ‘it was a period of economic boom, nobody was unemployed. It was just available, and everything just progressed.

The new laws of social security and work security reshaped the frames for the oldest generation’s lives as adults, but it was the expanding educational system that became decisive for their children. Whereas many in the older generation had to quit school early or give up the further education they wanted for economic reasons or due to family obligations, access to schools became easier for the middle generation. Before 1936, children only had to attend school when they were between seven and 12 years of age (although most stayed until their confirmation at 14), and children from rural areas only attended school every second day. From

1936, seven years of ordinary school became mandatory and in 1969 this was extended to nine years. High schools were built in rural areas too, and the state provided educational loans in combination with free access to universities and colleges with the aim of making it economically possible for students from poor families to also enter higher education. There was a strong political incentive for encouraging young people to get higher education, regardless of class and gender, as education was seen as the main tool to increase equality and justice and reduce class differences in the population. The number who graduated from high school in Norway increased from three per cent of the age cohort in 1930 to ten per cent in 1960 and 36 per cent in 1990 (academic track). Girls surpassed boys in frequency of high school graduation in 1975, and during the 1980s they also became the majority in higher education (Statistics Norway Social reproduction through education was somewhat reduced, but did not disappear. New intersections between gender and class were established: taking the educational track to social mobility became more common and successful for working- class girls than for working-class boys in the post-war generations. Before the 1960s, marriage was the most prevalent path to social mobility for all women, but with the expansion of the educational system and with girls on average achieving better in school than boys, this changed. The opportunities for girls in the educational system may partly be explained by the system’s degree of formalisation: if you do well on one level, you are invited to enter the next (Frones 2001). This has not least been the case in the Nordic countries, where there have been few private schools or elite schools, and where higher education has been, and still is, free.

The encouragement of girls’ education also led to a new intersection between gender and generation in the post-war years: the Norwegian economist Kari Skrede (1999) writes that this period had one policy for the daughters and another for the mothers. The policy for the mothers was based firmly on the gendered provider/carer family model, while the policy for the daughters had as its goal the breaking down of all kinds of class and gender barriers through the system of education. This ‘policy for the daughters’ is also seen in the early reduction of the gender gap in higher education in the Nordic countries. Compared to other European countries, the gender gaps in education among those born in the 1940 are small (Korpi 2000: 137).

The youngest generation was born at a time when the national security system had just been fully established. Continuing education after compulsory school has over the three generations changed from being a privilege of the few to being a matter of course and, finally, a necessity for young people who want to create a competitive CV The youngest generation was born in the year when Norway voted against membership in the EU (1972), but their childhood and youth still coincided with increasing internationalisation, mediatisation and new communication technologies. However, when we interviewed them in 1991, the Internet and the GSM net for mobile phones had not yet been launched.

The youngest generation grew up with self-evident affluence. Even though there were different economic standards in different families, nobody mentions not getting the clothes they want because of a lack of money. However, some did have parents who were critical towards brand-label clothing. For this generation as young persons, class differences seem to be perceived mainly as incidental differences in taste of music, clothes and lifestyle. Instead of talking about poor people, this generation talks about ‘losers’. One middle-class informant from our sample described girls coming from the eastern suburbs of Oslo not as less privileged than herself, but as ‘very common, a lot of make-up, quit school after junior high. But in the period when this generation came of age, income differences actually started to increase again in Norway. Trends of deregulation put pressure on the organisation of welfare state provisions, and the labour market became less stable and predictable. A recession took place in the late 1970s and marked the end of the stable political climate led by the social democratic party. Around the time we did our interviews in 1991, unemployment was relatively high, especially among young people.[2]

Norway found oil in 1969 and the state-owned oil industry made the country into one of the world’s richest during the following decades. This contributed to reducing the insecurity and inequality-promoting effects of the era of deregulation and economic crises, but not at the same pace as the growing social differences. Increasing competition in getting into the higher education, jobs, promotions and individualised salaries made life more stressful for young people compared with the previous decades. But in spite of increasing deregulations, privatisation and the population becoming more heterogeneous due to increased migration, so far the national security system has not been seriously affected (Korpi 2000; Ellingsster and Widerberg 2012).

  • [1] About 0.3 per cent of the Norwegian population lost their lives due to the Second World War.( This includes 738 of the 772 Norwegian Jews (adults and children) who were deported—with the assistance of the Norwegian state administration—to Germanextermination camps during the war. Only 34 returned alive.
  • [2] In 1992 there was about six per cent unemployment in total and about 13 per cent for 15—24-year-olds (Statistics Norway). This led to an expansion of higher education, which encouraged morepeople in our youngest generation to choose this option.
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