A balancing act: Why inequality increased in the Nordics

Mr. Jon Pareliussen, Economist, Sweden/Finland desk, Economics Department

The Nordics are rightly renowned for being inclusive societies with low inequality compared to other OECD countries. However, some of the largest inequality increases over the past few decades took place in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. A newly released article  building on previous OECD work discusses how market forces, demographic trends and redistribution together shaped the income distribution of the Nordics.

It may seem like a paradox that the Nordics, which are very open economies, heavily integrated in global value chains and front-runners in the use of new technologies, have not seen even more widening distributions of market incomes. However, the extent to which skill-biased technological change and other forces widening the earnings distribution of workers will actually drive up inequality depends on a number of factors, and key policies and institutions in the Nordics play a dampening role. First, institutions such as unions and collective bargaining, employment protection legislation and minimum wages dampen the direct effect of market trends on earnings. Second, higher demand for skills are met by publicly-funded higher education, increasing the supply of skilled workers and thus holding back skills premiums. Third, a widening earnings distribution among workers coincided with increasing employment, limiting the overall effect on inequality.

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With a relatively modest overall impact from market forces, explanations for increasing inequality must be sought elsewhere:

  • Demographic trends have been relatively strong drivers of inequality in the Nordics. Household structure, with more single-headed households has widened income dispersion in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Ageing has increased inequality significantly in Finland, and immigration has increased inequality in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
  • Redistribution through taxes and transfers has weakened significantly in Denmark, Finland and Sweden, notably due to less insurance transfers (i.e. unemployment, sickness, disability insurance) and only partially offset by more assistance (i.e. means-tested) transfers. Income taxes have played a less important and more heroegneous role, as progressivity increased in Sweden while it decreased in Denmark and Iceland.

Technological and demographic pressures are set to continue going forward, and these challenges need to be embraced. Continued flexibility and constructiveness of the social dialogue and improvements to education are essential to seize opportunities from technological change and avoid a widening wage distribution. Making social insurance and welfare transfers more flexible and agile would improve workers’ protection in a rapidly changing world of work. Improving benefit system design so that work always pays, notably in Denmark and Finland, and linking benefits to real-time income registries are important steps to this end.

The Nordics demonstrate that equity and efficiency can be compatible if incentives are right. Low inequality and strong safety nets can even be an advantage in today’s globalised world, which requires constant adaptation. Reaping the full benefits from globalisation and technological progress requires broad support, which is easier to muster when the social dialogue is constructive and representative, when everyone is given opportunities to fulfil their potential, risks are shared and losers compensated.

References:
Pareliussen, J. K., Hermansen, M., André, C. and Causa, O. (2018), Income Inequality in the Nordics from an OECD perspective, Nordic Economic Policy Review 2018.

 


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