How Janteloven has shaped Denmark’s welfare state

This set of social codes outlines the Danish characteristics of modesty and humility. It shapes not only individual behaviour, but the bigger cultural landscape. 

Anyone who has spent considerable time in Denmark will have encountered ‘Janteloven’, or ‘The Law of Jante’.

Janteloven is a code of conduct, outlined by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose in his 1933 work of satirical fiction En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor (A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks).

In the novel, Sandemose presents ten rules, inspired by Nordic attitudes of disapproval towards individuality and personal success. “Do not think you are anything special,” states the first, for example.

Today, Janteloven has entered the popular imagination and the term is used colloquially to describe the psyche and egalitarian social structures of Scandinavian societies.

In social institutions and business
When Sandemose captured the Nordic character, he also shaped and reinforced Scandinavians’ understanding of themselves.

The values that underpin Janetloven – community and collective spirit – continue to be evident in 21st century Danish society, via its strong Welfare State, free education, healthcare and social safety nets that provide equal opportunities to all.

Danes will be often boast about the Danish way of life – its welfare model and gender equality – where other nations might champion celebrity culture more instead.

Take the Danish brewery Carlsberg, for instance. Its slogan is ‘probably the best beer in the world’, while American Budweiser’s is ‘King of Beers’. Carlsberg taps into the Janteloven mindset by refraining from grandiose claims of being the best.

Effect on social behaviour
In the workplace, the same mindset fosters collaboration and flat hierarchies. Professional relationships emphasize community over the self, and thereby build a supportive culture. Even the royals of Denmark are considerably down to earth.

Moving away
But the interplay between tradition and modernity in Denmark is ever-evolving.

Many are challenging the Janteloven principles. Arguments against them include that they lead to the suppression of individual expression and innovation.

Recent research has contested the principles, or concluded that they have some negative outcomes. However, many still argue that Janteloven is at the heart of Danish happiness and welfare.