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The spirit of Iceland - Big cars and Big Spenders

The spirit of Iceland - Big cars and Big Spenders

| Text: Berit Kvam

The statistics of Iceland are remarkable. It stands out among the Nordic countries. It is the country with the highest employment rate (for women too), the lowest unemployment rate, the highest working age, the longest life expectancy, the highest birth rate and the lowest sick leave rates. Why is that? Where's the magic?

Gudfinna BjarnardóttirBig four-wheelers are a conspicuous feature of Reykjavik. A British engineer was amazed at the sight that met him at Reykjavik Airport: “The parking lot was full of them, I even saw a huge one with six wheels, with a double pair of decks at the back.”

The landscape is rough and rugged, with areas where steam rises out of the ground and other places sitting on volcanic bedrock, but the climate is surprisingly mild thanks to the Golf Stream. It is necessary to have a four wheel drive if you want to go off road and into the wilderness, people say. Still, some will admit that it is first and foremost a symbol of status, success, power and wealth.

It is the Icelanders’ Armani. 

Gudfinna Bjarnardóttir, Dean of the newly established Reykjavik University, has a huge one, while Stefan Olafsson, Professor of Sociology at the older University of Iceland, has a slightly smaller one.

- We are a consumer society, the sociologist explains. Although less than ten per cent of the population have any connection with the fishing industry today, the fisherman mentality still prevails. The general attitude to money is “easy come, easy go”.

Combined with the heritage of the Viking era, which is still very much alive, the culture is characterized by a unique work mentality. People are always willing to do whatever it takes to finish a job.

- When fishing-boats came in, the catch had to be landed and the fish processed as soon as possible, whether it was Sunday or Monday. Having fled from Norway, the king and taxes, the Vikings who arrived in Iceland had to rely on themselves and live off nature. They didn’t want to submit to a governing body. In Althingi, the world’s oldest functioning legislative assembly, established in 930, they agreed on common laws and met to mediate in conflicts.

This agrarian settler society of independent clans bred a mindset and spirit that are still typical of these self-reliant, hard-working and big-spending people. Even the language has changed very little from the original tongue spoken by the Norse settlers.

Today, this spirit is seen as the cultural basis for entrepreneurship. The Viking era, when its seafarers conquered the world and its bards were guests at the courts of Europe, lives on in Icelanders’ minds. Not until fishing developed into a profitable industry was the nation ready again to surge forward and leave the poverty of the Middle Ages behind it. Since World War II, Iceland, then one of the poorest countries in Europe, has become one of the richest nations in the world according to OECD statistics.

Ironically, the fascination with large cars is also a by-product of fishing. The industry still accounts for more than 70 per cent of the country’s exports.

Large imports of luxury goods, made possible mainly by fish exports, make the economy vulnerable. Gudfinna Bjarnardóttir was appointed to guide the country away from this dependence. The mandate given by the Reykjavik Chamber of Commerce when the new business school, the Reykjavik University, was set up in 1998, was to increase Iceland’s competitiveness.

Gudfinna immediately translated this mandate into three guiding principles: entrepreneurship, technological development and bold use of technology, and globalization, based on benchmarking, thinking big and learning from best practice.

- Entrepreneurs will drive economic growth. I am convinced of it, Gudfinna says.

‘Thinking big’ has resulted in international networking, benchmarking with the most renowned business schools in the world and learning business entrepreneurship from best practice in Ireland.

Now into its fourth year, this new, private, but still mainly state-funded university already has 1300 students and still has to turn applicants down. Although the tuition fees are $1,000 a year, parents beg for their children to be admitted.

The standard of the electronic equipment is amazing. Gudfinna Bjarnardóttir, the Dean of Reykjavik University, shows off every room in the School of Computer Science and proudly singles out the research division for special praise. There they are doing outstanding work, she claims. The executive education offered for managers and business professionals is the milk cow, she explains. As for herself, she looks at every little bill the University pays, in order to be in full control of the economy and make sure the money is used in the best possible way.

Stefan Olafsson, Professor of Sociology at the University of Iceland, has just installed a completely new, elegant flat screen computer.

- Not necessary, he modestly exclaims.

- The old one was quite all right, but the state gave the University extra funds to boost standards. Icelanders are keen to forge ahead with the best equipment money can buy.

And that is not all.

Entrepreneurship is nurtured. A three-year project at Reykjavik University aimed at educating women in entrepreneurship is drawing to an end. The project has not yet been evaluated, but the three bright women, Gudfinna, Thoranna and Halla who are in charge of it, are convinced that many more women have now learned that they can make it on their own.

The success story is the woman who is opening up a branch of her Reykjavik clothes store in Stockholm. But you have to start early to create an atmosphere where being an entrepreneur is as natural as working for somebody else, they think. So the project leaders are now targeting girls. 13 to 16-year-olds are invited to a summer camp to learn about business through game playing.

- And after that we will give boys the same chance, the  Dean cuts in.

Iceland must be close to the dream of a capitalist society. The Social Democratic Party has never been the dominant party of government in the same way as in the other Nordic countries. Taxes are lower and the welfare system not as well-developed as in the rest of Scandinavia. There is also a downside to this, Stefan Olafsson explains. Society is based on the assumption that everybody works long hours and also does their share of voluntary work and housework. And close to 90 per cent of the people are in the labour market. But if for some reason you don’t have a job, because you are old, an invalid, redundant or for some other reason, you will not be well off.

A sudden illness can bankrupt you. Illicit work is common among older people who need to eke out their low pension. And believe it or not, Iceland tops the league of tranquillizer misusers.

The magic? It’s right there, like the Geyser sprouting from the inside of the earth, and well worth the visit.


Iceland is a large country with a population of 286,000 people, 180,000 of whom live in the Reykjavik region. Roughly the same size as Ireland, it is very sparsely populated, with only 3 persons per square kilometre.


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