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Innocents Abroad

0 March 28, 2019

If I am going to talk about standard of living/wage questions I have to start with a little information on Norway. I’m assuming that most of polyphonic.org’s readers don’t know too much about the country. I mean, why should they, it is only 4,500,000 people and doesn’t usually make a big splash in the news. It has traditionally had a social democratic government and strong beliefs that everyone should earn a living wage (no matter what their job) and that the rich shouldn’t be too rich. In 1969, oil was discovered offshore, and since then Norway has been raking in the money. Most of the oil reserves are state-owned and in 1990 an oil fund (since renamed the Pension Fund) was set up to invest the profits from the oil fields so that when the oil runs out Norway will still have the investments. The government only uses the expected earnings of the investments each year so the money just keeps piling up. As the biggest pension fund in the world, it is now worth $303,000,000,000. CNN reports that Norway is now considered the richest society in the world and the U.N. has listed it for the past four years as having the highest standard of living. But on another list that is not so great to be number one on, Oslo has recently surpassed Tokyo as the world’s most expensive city.

So when I say that a tutti string player with full seniority makes $63,000 a year, that might seem alright until you learn that a Big Mac meal costs $10.50, a beer $10, and a gallon of gas $6.80. Income tax is about 36%, but then we have free health-care, free education (including college), one year’s paid leave from work after having a baby (to be divided by the couple as they wish) and good unemployment benefits. In the past, all the orchestras in Norway have earned the same, despite differences in work-load, cost of living and quality. It was a very Norwegian idea of sticking together and supporting each other. But recently, all of Norwegian society has started becoming more “American” and the idea that education and quality should pay is taking hold. The Oslo Philharmonic went on strike last year to protest the low salaries and, though it didn’t help much at the time, more money is now a top priority of the players (and, we hope, the administration) so we are optimistic about the future. We earn a bit less than a high school teacher, about the same as a fireman, but more than a nurse. Lawyers, doctors, dentists all earn substantially more.

The property prices in Oslo have gone through the roof since 1994 (300%, I think), so the musicians that bought their houses/apartments earlier are doing well. But our newly hired colleagues really can’t afford to buy anything if they are single. A studio apartment (370 square feet) in a relatively central location goes for $250,000. The small apartments are the most expensive so you can get more bang for your buck if you are two. Couples with children used to move further out where they could have a house or a duplex, but now an “urban life-style” has become popular so the younger couples are staying in town in apartments, even with children. The public transportation here is extraordinary, so there is no need to buy a car and most people travel less than 30 minutes to get to work. Personally, I live 20 minutes walking distance from the concert hall in an elegant residential neighborhood. We have a 2-bedroom apartment from 1905 with ceilings 11 feet high. It certainly isn’t as roomy as the way most Americans live but, on the other hand, within a few blocks there is a post office, a gourmet grocery store, an antique store, an art-film movie theater and several cool cafes. It might not be for everyone, but for me that is quality of life.

As for retirement, between social security and the orchestra’s private pension plan, you get 66% of your former salary. It is popular for Norwegians to move to Spain or Thailand for their retirement, where it is warmer and cheaper, but I don’t know of any colleagues that have done that. The baby boomers are looking at retirement soon but, as I was saying, Norway is one of the few countries that is well prepared to meet its commitments.

I would say that about 30% of our members work regularly outside the orchestra, but more for personal fulfillment than because they need the money to survive. The conservatory has many Philharmonic members as teachers, many project-based chamber groups, chamber orchestras and new music groups are based on the Philharmonic, and there is a very lively studio recording scene here (pop and films).

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