If you’re coming from abroad to work in Denmark, you may be bringing along your spouse. That can be great – it’s nice to have someone to shiver through the Danish summer with.
But unhappy spouses are one of the main reasons that people who come to work in Denmark end up leaving.
Denmark is not an easy place to make friends, given that Danish culture tends toward “respecting your privacy” by not striking up conversations with strangers.
It can also be tough for spouses to get jobs in Denmark, particularly well-educated spouses seeking jobs at their level of expertise.
No more cookie pushers
A generation ago, expat spouses were mostly “cookie pushers” – stay-at-home-wives who supported their husbands’ careers with chic little cocktail parties for his business associates. They ran the house and the family while he ran the world.
Spouses today are different. Most come to Denmark after finishing their advanced educations, and they are sometimes mid-career. A good portion are men.
A lot of contemporary spouses don’t want to stay at home, and even if they did, that’s rarely affordable in Denmark. The Danish tax structure makes single-earner households a rarity. Even if the person working has a generous salary, a big chunk of that income will go to taxes. And prices are high in Denmark for rent, food, and other daily necessities.
Besides, stay-at-home spouses don’t really have a role in Danish society, as they do in many other cultures. There’s no need to stay home and care for small children: Danish kids start full-time day care when they are about a year old. (Not sending your child to day care is considered very poor parenting in Denmark, since day care is where the kids learn Danish and learn the social rules so important to Danish culture. Even the children of the Danish Royal Family go to day care.)
And because there are so few other stay-at-home spouses, people who choose to stay at home can find themselves very lonely.
The working spouse has colleagues and business connections to help them ease into Danish culture. The non-working spouse can feel adrift.
Finding jobs for trailing spouses in Denmark
That said, finding a job for a trailing spouse in Denmark isn’t easy, even if that spouse is highly educated, and especially if the spouse’s partner is on a limited-term contract.
Even though the average Danish employee usually switches jobs every two to three years, employers can be scared by the knowledge that you’re definitely going to leave in two or three years.
A good tip is to look for barselvikariat – these are short-term jobs to cover for employees on pregnancy leave, so they’re naturally limited in time.
Another option is to lie – or to slightly obscure the truth. Instead of “My spouse has a two-year contract” you can say, “Well, we’re starting with two years. But we love Denmark for so many reasons…” and go on to list some of those reasons. You’ll never go wrong as a foreigner by telling a Dane how much you love Denmark.
Besides, you never know. Things can change a lot in two years.
Some spouses find jobs at large companies with English as a corporate language, or with non-governmental organizations based in Copenhagen. But that’s not practical for everyone, particularly if your spouse’s job keeps you in Jutland.
You could try leveraging your native language – working, for example, as a Finnish-speaking customer service rep to help the Finnish customers of a Danish firm. In general, the more general your job target (“sales” “customer service” “communication”), the more successful you are likely to be in your job hunt. If you’re looking for something very specific, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Job-hunting at smaller companies
The harsh fact is that spouses will probably have to lower their expectations when looking for a job. That sounds counter-intuitive in a country with many high-tech industries that are screaming for highly-educated workers, but it’s the direct experience of many people working with spouse placement.
The jobs available may not be in your specific field, or they may not be in the area where you live.
You’ll probably have to look for jobs at smaller companies, where the employees are all Danish and not entirely comfortable speaking English.
That discomfort means that you may need to start with a 6-month unpaid placement so the company can discover how many wonderful things you can contribute. Local bosætningskonsulenter – settlement consultants – can help you find this kind of placement.
The elevator speech
Spouses looking for a job in Denmark – really, anyone looking for a job in Denmark – should also have a 15-20 word “elevator speech” about what you can do, or what you want to do.
Focus on what you can offer a business, not on your degrees. “I want to help small companies work with online procurement, and I’m very interested in sustainability,” is much better than “I have a MSc in computer science.”
This short speech can be used during social occasions and other unofficial networking opportunities – and most hiring in Denmark is done by networking. Your partner’s colleague, your child’s day care minder, or the guy pouring your coffee may know someone looking for someone like you.
Something other than working
A spouse can also avoid the Danish labor market entirely by doing distance work. Illustration, freelance writing, programming, can all basically be done from anywhere, although as a resident of Denmark you’ll still be responsible for paying Danish taxes on your income. (That can be a handicap if you compete on price, because the people you’re competing with usually do not pay giant Danish taxes and are often willing to work for less.)
If your visa allows it, set up a one-person business in Denmark so you can deduct your business expenses (computers, phones, travel) against your overall income, lowering your Danish taxes. Setting up a one-person business is easy and can be done online in less than a day; some municipalities even offer courses in English on how to do it.
Alternately, your time in Denmark can be a good chance to finally complete that Masters’ degree or PhD, particularly since tuition is often tax-financed and free for the student. Your fellow students will also provide you with a social network, which will make your time in Denmark happier.
If all else fails, write a book.
Keeping happy is key
Whatever your approach, keeping yourself happy and engaged in Danish society is a major factor in your spouse’s success in Denmark. If you find yourself entirely dependent for social contact on your spouse, that can be tough on your spouse’s career and tough on your relationship.
To keep from getting too isolated, you might need to re-establish old hobbies. If you used to love squash or play stand-up bass in a jazz band, now might be the time to take it up again. Knitting circles and short-term volunteering are also good ways to make friends. So are your free introductory Danish language classes. And a lot of municipalities have set up International Communities and stage networking events, inviting speakers like me.
Introvert spouses will probably have the hardest time. Danes see friendship as a lifelong relationship, so they’re unlikely to invest emotions in someone they fear will only be around for a couple of years or so. They may seem cold, but the truth is they just don’t want to start something they’re not sure they can finish.
Most of your social contacts will probably be other expats, or sometimes Danes who have lived in your country. At the very least, these types of people will be able to nod their heads and sympathize when you complain about the Danish weather.
Image mashup copyright Kay Xander Mellish 2018