Pace of modern life: UK v Denmark

A man in a suit is running while pushing a pram with a baby inside

The UK has a reputation for poor work-life balance and days full of hurry and worry. Is Denmark an example to follow? For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, I decided to find out.

At this time of year, it's not just the children who need a break. Modern life, with its endless demands at work and home, can leave many feeling there is just no more petrol left in the tank.

The latest ONS figures show the UK is getting "slightly happier". But life isn't easy for most.

Britons commute into work, rush around all day, and then do the reverse in the evening. We wistfully think the occasional drink with colleagues would be nice, but we haven't seen the family all day, and besides, staying out means lumbering your partner with the childcare.

Even exercise - supposedly for de-stressing - becomes yet another thing to factor in. It's a disciplined, timetabled life, in which everything works so long as no-one is ill - but is there room to breathe?

But according to the OECD, Britons actually work fewer hours than average, based on their analysis of 34 member countries. But 12% of Britons (18% of men and 6% of women) work "very long hours" compared with the OECD average of 9%.

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Britons get something for it of course - our average income is higher than the norm, but there's a big gap between rich and poor.

The pace is made even faster by electronic media, which has in just over a decade completely changed everything we do at both work and home. Internet and email means many Britons are never off-duty. Even though a standard working week is 40 hours, many of us do free overtime, and are required to be available over the weekend.

Reeta Chakrabarti examines whether it is possible to slow down the pace of life

When would people not take a work call? At a wedding? A funeral? But this is just what modern life is like, right? Well, maybe not entirely. Maybe there is a different pace at which to live.

Carl Honore, author of the book In Praise of Slow, changed his life when he found himself looking longingly at a book of bedtime stories for the time-pressed parent which took precisely 60 seconds to tell. Appalled at his skewed priorities, he decided to get out of the fast lane and introduce some slowness to his life.

He's not anti-speed but he says the modern world's addiction to it is eroding health, productivity and the quality of life.

A "dead slow" sign on a road c. 1930

"Do less. We are trying to do way too many things, so line up all the stuff you have for a week, and start cutting from the bottom, from what's least important to you. Switch off the gadgets, turn off the smartphone, turn off the wi-fi, and just have moments where you can recharge, reflect, and just get away from that speed and distraction."

He also suggests a "speed audit", stopping and checking whether you are doing something too fast, scheduling more time in between appointments so that you're not rushing, and finding a slow ritual, such as gardening or yoga.

It's all very well being given an individual makeover. But some countries enjoy an entire society and culture where everyone is genuinely more chilled and less driven. It is Denmark that scores highest on the UN's first World Happiness report.

Perhaps it's the top drama they all consume but maybe they can also offer a few lessons in slowing down.

Denmark

This country with less than a tenth of the population of the UK seems very comfortable in its own skin. The Danes work on average less than Britons do, and not surprisingly earn (on average) less per household too. A higher proportion of women work here than at home - but a much lower proportion (of both sexes) work very long hours.

A canal in Copenhagen with brightly coloured buildings

Is that just it then? Work less? But how do they get on in life? Aren't they ambitious for more?

This mindset doesn't square with the Danish perspective, says Prof Christian Bjornskov, an economist at Aarhus University.

World happiness index 2012

1. Denmark

2. Finland

3. Switzerland

4. Norway

5. Sweden

Source: The Earth Institute, Columbia University

"Danes are ambitious," he says, "but they don't like to show their ambition. They like to succeed but not in public. It means you can have social relations with people very different from yourself. So you play golf with your dustman or you're in a tennis club with someone living a completely different life than you. It also means you accept a lot of different lifestyles. There are no real lifestyles that are taboo. There's no right or wrong life so you can choose the life that fits you."

Phil and Tanja Gosney know this first-hand. He's British, she's Danish, and their life in Copenhagen, together with toddler Charlie, is rather different from the one Phil led in the UK.

He says he loves it in Denmark, where he's now lived for five years. "In the UK," he says, "I was really working extremely long hours [as a lawyer] and also the commute was taking me quite a lot of time - which meant that if we'd based our family there I would really have had very limited opportunity to see Tanja and Charlie, and Tanja would have had to take quite a big burden of bringing up our family."

Danish children crowded together waving Danish flags Danish childcare is available for a fraction of the cost in the UK

Does he feel less able to be successful in Denmark than in the UK?

"I feel just as successful here as I did in London, although perhaps the measures are different and there's less focus on money or status, or what kind of house you live in."

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Little mermaid statue

Family life seems very healthy in Denmark. All the women work, but having children doesn't kill their careers as the childcare is so good. Little Charlie goes to nursery from 9-4 for a fraction of what it would cost in the UK. Tanja Gosney says parents at Charlie's nursery compete not to be the last to pick up their child - the exact opposite of our keeping the seat warm at work. And rush hour in Copenhagen is at around 4pm. People work hard from 8-4, and then go home to be with their families.

There are other sides to this idyll of course. Danes pay high taxes. And Tanja says people who are overtly ambitious and who try to distinguish themselves by their achievement are frowned upon for getting above themselves. There's even a word for it - "janteloven".

But it also results in an egalitarianism that underpins society, and in a rounder view of what success means.

Living in a country like Denmark would be great. But living a Danish life in the UK would be tricky, as everyone here is so intent on achievement.

But in the competitive rat race of British life it is clearly possible to learn a few lessons from the Danes and from slowing down. The pace of modern life can sometimes be overwhelming, but summer is the time for a slow fightback to begin.

BBC News: The Editors features the BBC's on-air specialists asking questions which reveal deeper truths about their areas of expertise. Watch it on BBC1 on Monday 29 July at 23:10 BST or catch it later on the BBC iPlayer or on BBC World News .

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