Denmark and cupcakes, or how work life can be a whole lot sweeter

Copenhagen, Denmark.

Last week, my Danish friends and colleagues were reeling from the recent takedown of their country on FOX News.

After describing the Venezuelan crisis — “No food, no healthcare, no jobs, lots of violence…. This is what socialism looks like in Venezuela” — FOX commentator Trish Regan took an unexpected turn toward Denmark with a (mis)citation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ah, facts). “Something’s rotten in Denmark,” she began. “Denmark’s freebies — well they’re anything but free,” she continued, citing the high taxes Scandinavia is famous for. “No one wants to work,” she went on, noting that in addition to taking too long to complete university because students are paid a stipend to attend, all the kids graduating from school in Denmark want to start — what else? — cupcake cafes. All of them!

Until this point, I imagine most Danish viewers were chuckling to themselves.

Then, she delivered her punchline: “Denmark, like Venezuela, has stripped people of their opportunity.” And an entire Scandinavian nation of 5.7 million dropped their smørrebrød sandwiches as their evening of candlelit hygge came to an abrupt end.

Later in the week, Dan Jørgensen of Denmark’s Social Democratic Party delivered a funny, clever, typically Danish response using actual facts. But with the current state of facts in America, and storytelling having a moment, I thought this might a good time to share what working in Denmark was actually like for an American woman, and the lasting impact the experience left on my worldview and my professional and personal paths.

I’ve been married to a Dane for ten years, and when we started our lives together, I lived and worked in Denmark for three years. Was it perfect? Nej, nej. No place is, except, maybe, a cupcake cafe.

I was 25 when we moved to Copenhagen with my husband, a Dane I met in graduate school in London. I had worked in the US for several years prior, and, uninspired by where my career in communications and marketing seemed headed, escaped abroad. Like London, I saw Copenhagen as an adventure. I had few expectations: I, too, knew only of Hamlet’s kingdom.

Were my three years there perfect? Nej, nej. Nothing is, except, maybe, a cupcake cafe. But there is a collective life wisdom governing the country that anyone can learn from. And what I learned was transformative.

In Copenhagen, I landed a job as an English-language copywriter and brand strategist at an agency that helped top Danish companies communicate globally — and discovered a new professional world.

I distinctly remember making a flash card for meritocracy for the SATs, but had never completely grasped the concept. Having lived in Moscow, Russia until the age of ten, worked an array of mostly retail jobs as a teen in the US, and held an entry-level marketing coordinator role after college, I had never experienced it first-hand until I joined the Danish workforce.

In Copenhagen, I was given opportunities that had been out of reach in my post-college career in Washington, DC — but seemed standard for young professionals in the Danish workplace. If as a marketing coordinator in DC I observed client meetings and took notes, in Copenhagen — just one and a half years later — I was seated across from Microsoft execs to discuss branding for new software and found myself writing about magical underwater worlds for LEGO.

I became — or, rather, was given the opportunity to become — a version of myself I had never met.

My Danish work life was nothing like the slow corporate ladder climb I had braced for in the US. I felt empowered and challenged. I was rapidly given increasing responsibility — without working evenings or weekends. And, because in Denmark you don’t earn more vacation over the course of your tenure with a company but rather get the same six weeks whether you are 25 or 65, burnout was nowhere on my radar.

Like most Danish employees, I enjoyed one-hour lunches with my fellow colleagues: daily, delicious, catered meals. These are tax-deductible for companies — so long as they are made available to all employees. Again, that focus on equality, not hierarchy.

Our Copenhagen office had a beautiful yard, and on warm days, we often ate outside, faces turned to the sun. When I happened to be with my main client on a Friday, we’d wrap up early and the CEO would uncork a nice bottle of red.

When my husband and I relocated to the US to be closer to my family as we grew our own, I decided to continue working for Danish brands as a freelancer. Nearly ten years later, I’m still at it, having worked with PANDORA jewelry as they launch new global collections and develop a thoughtful Corporate Social Responsibility program, VELUX windows as they explore sustainable building solutions, ECCO as they push the limits of materials to improve shoe technology and run philanthropic fundraisers.

Hardly a nation of people too busy wasting government money and too stripped of opportunity or motivation to work.

In Copenhagen for the opening of the design shop YUME, with co-founders Marie Engberg (center) and Anja Holm (right).

There’s also the sustainable design startup YUME, whose founders, Marie Engberg and Anja Holm, work as hard as any entrepreneurs (and young mothers) I’ve ever met. And Annette Spanggaard, creator of a top boutique Scandinavian PR agency and a jewelry brand that supports female education and entrepreneurship.

This happens to be just a small sampling of the Danes I work with on a regular basis.

I’m not on a mission to offer a photoshopped version of Denmark. For all its virtues, it can be a complicated place for a foreigner, for reasons many others have thoughtfully examined.

But would I be willing to pay over half of my salary for the chance to join an inspired organization that fulfills me intellectually — yet has no problem with me taking a couple of days off when one of my kids gets sick, or leaving at 3 pm to pick them up, or taking all of my six weeks of vacation? Absolutely. I’m fairly certain that with the high-quality, highly affordable childcare Denmark throws in, the numbers would more than even out. It’s a sad state of affairs when women have to turn down their dream jobs because they can’t afford pre-school.

And if my kids go to college and take a little longer to complete their degrees, studying at their own pace and enjoying life while earning a stipend instead of dealing with anxiety over $16,000 college advisor fees, insane debt, and the fear of losing access to the family medical insurance in their mid-20s? That’s just fine. My kids’ Danish godfather, who took five or six years to complete his undergraduate degree, is now doing quite well at a top Danish bank and giving right back to the society that supported him as he figured out his career path.

The US is at no risk of becoming Denmark, no matter what we do. It seems to me that we are, at the moment, at risk of much worse. But we have a chance to learn. And if we open ourselves up to the lessons of a social democracy — where everyone has healthcare and can go to school and work, where entrepreneurship is high, and where people work hard yet know how to live— we can be certain that our country won’t resemble Venezuela in its current state.

It won’t be a cupcake café, either, but we can’t all go around starting cupcake cafes now, can we?