In today’s world, I think it makes a lot more sense, for example, [for] health insurance to be provided regardless of a specific employer. It supports this more mobile work environment and career path.
[What] young people in America today expect, when they’re in college, is that both partners—whether they’re men and women or two women or two men—will take care of children. And then when these kids come out of college, they go to start their family, and all of a sudden it doesn’t work that way. Women still are taking care of the family more, and the other partner ends up working more.
Friedman: What is parental leave and child care like in Finland, for example, and why do you feel, compared with America, that that approach provides more independence, opportunity, and freedom for people?
Partanen: In all Nordic countries, the minimum amount of paid parental leave that everybody gets is about nine months. You can share [that leave] between parents, and some of it is also earmarked for fathers, in order to encourage them to take more leave.
What does this do? Well, first of all, it allows families to have children and take care of their children and still have a job to go back to. But it also allows for men and women to share the work and share the home more equally. From an employer’s perspective, I think it also makes sense because when these [policies] are enshrined in a national law and every employer has to offer these benefits, then it levels the playing field for all employers.
In Nordic countries, you [also] have subsidized child care, which is regulated, often operated, by the public sector, sometimes with private providers. It’s paid for generally on a sliding scale according to income. If you don’t have any money, you get it for free; if you make more money, then you pay more. Again, this makes family life saner, it helps parents to work, it gives all children access to early-childhood education.
Friedman: How does health care work in Nordic countries?
Partanen: Health care is a taxpayer-funded service, [in the same way that the] police, fire department, or public schools are [in America]. Generally, the government runs hospitals—doctors, nurses, they get paid [as] government employees. Americans often worry about not having any choice [in medical care]. There’s certainly private doctors as well that you can choose, there’s private health insurance you can buy if you want to have it in addition to the public coverage. Many employers do offer some sort of primary-care-physician access as a benefit, but things like that are usually [provided through the] public sector.
When I moved [to the United States], I was shocked [by the health-care system]. Companies and businesses are supposed to make money, not provide social services. That’s the job of the government. From the employee’s [and] the family’s perspective, it also seems really imprisoning, because the whole family, often, is included in one person’s insurance. So it means that the person who is employed and who has the health insurance certainly has to think twice about whether they want to change jobs, whether they want to become an entrepreneur. When it comes to family, I think it’s also problematic that such a fundamental, basic social service that everybody needs [can require] you to be dependent on one person: your spouse. Even grown children are [often dependent] on their parents’ health insurance.