Updated: Jun 24
The Corona crisis has bred global uncertainty, but internationals have faced unique concerns. Experts weigh in on the future of international life in Denmark.
Text: Sarah Redohl
Imagine if you were planning to move to Denmark in March of 2020 - and then the Covid pandemic struck. Denmark has closed its borders to anyone without a 'worthy purpose' for entry. As a result, people are getting turned away at the border, and you wonder if a job offer and a pending residence permit count as worthy. What would you do?
The Corona crisis has bred global uncertainty, but internationals have faced unique concerns - from witnessing an unprecedented pandemic far from our families to watching countries close borders and cut us off from either our homeland or else the country we currently call home.
"It's been taken for granted by internationally mobile families that they can just go back and see their family regularly," said Claire Maxwell, a sociology professor specialising in internationalisation and mobility at the University of Copenhagen. Having moved from the United Kingdom three years ago, she would know. "Suddenly, internationals find themselves landlocked. For some, that can be quite destabilising, making them question, 'Is this life for me?' or 'Can I cope with being so far from friends and family?'"
Internationals have been left to ponder these questions for more than a year now. But, as the situation steadily improves, we face a new question: What awaits Denmark's internationals on the other side of the Corona crisis?
Foreign labour falls
In 2020, Denmark experienced the most significant drop in residence permits issued since the financial crisis in 2008, according to data from Danmarks Statistik. According to a recent analysis from Dansk Industri (DI), an organisation representing approximately 18,500 companies across Denmark, internationals comprise 10 percent of the Danish labour market. That's a total of around 287,000 people, with roughly 13,000 internationals joining the Danish labour market in 2019 alone.
"We would have expected a similar increase in 2020, but it was just 0.5 percent," said Søren Kjærsgaard Høfler, a political consultant in global mobility at DI. He said the decline is particularly significant because of the increasing importance of internationals in the Danish labour market. "Foreign labour has been a driving force in the Danish labour market over the past 10 years. And with an expected decline of 10,000 people in the Danish labour market in 2022 because of the early retirement reform, we need international labour more than ever."
When the Danish borders closed in March of 2020, Høfler said, it became increasingly difficult for Danish companies to navigate relocating internationals. "It was hard to determine what exactly was a 'worthy purpose' for entry into Denmark," he said. As a result, many internationals chose to stay put.
However, according to Nikolaj Lubanski, "fewer internationals are coming to Denmark, but that doesn't mean they are not being hired." He's the director of marketing and talent at Copenhagen Capacity, an organisation supporting foreign companies, investors, and talent to identify and capitalise on business opportunities in Greater Copenhagen. Throughout the pandemic, he said, many Danish companies have hired internationals and onboarded them digitally.
It's a trend Lubanski expects will persist beyond the pandemic, as it has allowed companies to find the right candidate, "rather than being limited to whoever can start in Denmark on the first of August." Other benefits include the ability for internationals to relocate at a time that is more convenient for their families or only after both parties know the position is a good match.
Covid has also increased the number of Danish companies open to permanent virtual assignments. This is a trend Simon Fuglsang Østergaard, a futurist at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies (CIFS), believes is here to stay. "Companies have gained experience seeking particular skill sets in a different way, one where they don't have to relocate families to access those skill sets," he said. As a result, Covid has given us a preview of how the future of work and future working lives are under transformation.
Although Høfler expects to see an increasing number of internationals work for Danish companies from abroad - visiting Denmark for shorter periods for training, specific projects, or to "get the DNA of the company" - he added, "we hear again and again that companies still want internationals to be physically present here."
And, as Østergaard points out, "Part of being an international and a world citizen is the desire to go to new places and live in different cultures."
Despite the decline of residence permits in 2020, Høfler believes internationals' interest in Denmark as a career destination remains strong. "The Danish labour market is doing very well, considering the Corona crisis," he said. Furthermore, "I think people see that Denmark has gone through the Corona crisis fairly well." And that could matter to internationals considering a move.
"If I were a family contemplating a big move during or shortly after the pandemic, I'd wonder 'What if something like this happened again?'" said Laura Wintemute, a relocation expert and owner of Homestead. In that regard, she said, Denmark may come out of the pandemic as an even more appealing option for internationals. "I look at how some other countries have dealt with COVID, and it makes me so happy that I live in Denmark."
According to Wintemute, her relocation company Homestead now does more virtual home viewings than physical ones. "It will be the way of the future," she said. "People will be able to move into their new home on the first day they get here."
Karin Klitgaard Møller, Copenhagen director of CIEE, one of the largest study abroad organisations in the United States, believes Denmark's response to the pandemic is likely to inspire confidence among prospective international students and their parents. CIEE seems to agree that Copenhagen will remain an attractive destination for students. Before the pandemic, CIEE had roughly 70 study centres worldwide; today, it has 26 - including its centre in Copenhagen.
On a larger scale, Maxwell wonders how the pandemic will change students' perspective for whom studying abroad is part of a longer-term plan to live abroad. "I think [the pandemic] shook their confidence in the idea that 'This is where I belong' or 'I can be an international person,'" she said. "When suddenly they feel less secure about their right to be somewhere, it can be very unsettling."
Although Maxwell thinks the pandemic hasn't changed the underlying reasons students wish to study abroad, there is a question of return on investment - particularly among families for whom the cost to send their children abroad is a significant expenditure. "The uncertainty may make those families question the expense," Maxwell said, "if their child may not be able to stay there or may study online anyway."
Østergaard believes the affordability of higher education in Denmark will make it an attractive option for international students. "I definitely see the challenges Covid has created to the university business model in the U.S., for example, where education is so expensive, and people might not be willing to pay that much if they aren't going to class in person," he said but doesn't think that's the case in Denmark.
Although Møller hopes to welcome international students in the fall, she anticipates a slow return to pre-Covid levels. When it comes to Denmark's international professionals, the experts share similar expectations. "I think the number of internationals coming to Denmark will return to what it was, but it's going to happen more slowly than I'd like," Lubanski said.
During Covid, many of our day-to-day activities have moved online, from work to grocery shopping and socialising. "The physical and the digital have merged into a hybrid reality in ways we imagined," Østergaard said, "only faster than we could have imagined."
Demand among Danish companies
Although certain industries have not yet recovered from the crisis, and some may never return to what was, DI's Director of Global Talent and Mobility Danielle Bjerre Lyndgaard said many Danish companies are growing. This includes industries like life sciences, health, and green energy, all of which have a strong footprint in Denmark and have flourished during the pandemic. "In IT, for example, there was already a need for international employees, and that's only grown during Covid," Lyndgaard said. "I think the need for international workers will be as big as it was before - maybe even bigger."
Copenhagen Capacity's Greater Copenhagen Career Portal, which advertises jobs especially suited for international candidates, has seen a 30 percent increase in job postings, Lubanski said. Although the portal has undergone recent improvements, he thinks there's more to the platform's growth: "Hiring during Covid has been a challenge. Companies realise they need to recruit digitally across many platforms."
Lubanski thinks the limited flow of new internationals into Copenhagen has also encouraged companies to consider the internationals already in Denmark, from graduating students to spouses. Copenhagen Capacity has strived to connect those internationals to opportunities and convince graduating internationals to establish their careers in Denmark. "Companies still want the diversity and competencies internationals to bring to their teams," he said.
Although Maxwell has noticed the same inclination, she's also identified a gap between Danish companies' desire to hire internationals and actually hiring internationals. She thinks this is the result of twin pressures: "On one hand, there's a real sense that Covid has affected the economy and made some companies very cautious - so the idea of recruiting international talent can feel overwhelming, especially when they aren't certain about the return on investment. But, on the other hand, there's a real sense that international specialists are needed to kick start the economy again, increase innovation and that we should be seeking to meet this challenge head-on."
DI is trying to close that gap by encouraging Danish companies who haven't yet hired international staff to do so during this period of increased innovation and openness to new ideas. "One of the biggest obstacles for Danish companies hiring internationals is hiring the first one," Lyndgaard said. "We want to help Danish companies be more daring."
DI is also expanding its strategy for attracting global talent to Denmark. "The tendency until now was to brand Denmark as a career country where you could go to work, bring your family, and live a good life," Lyndgaard said. "In the future, we will also be branding Danish companies and our special work culture." That message may be attractive to relocating internationals, as well as those seeking remote jobs.
Increased openness to remote work could also benefit Denmark's current internationals, Lubanski thinks. "There's much more flexibility to allow internationals to visit their family for extended periods, working remotely for several weeks alongside vacation time at home," he said. "The flexibility of remote work is not only useful for gaining work, but also for life satisfaction."
Østergaard has witnessed this firsthand at the CIFS office. Although he prefers going into the office, some of his colleagues prefer working remotely. In fact, he hasn't seen one of his American colleagues who also lives in Copenhagen in more than a year. "That might be a trend in itself, focusing on doing things in a personal way as a result of Covid breaking us out of our conventions," he said. "Non-normal is becoming the new normal."
One way this has impacted internationals, in particular, is the increasing acceptance of virtual home viewings. "There was no reason why we couldn't do virtual house viewings before the pandemic - the technology was there," Østergaard said. "Tech enables change, but some of the strongest barriers for change are our own habits and tradition." Now that tradition is gone, people have become more open to virtual viewings.
The future is ours to choose
As a futurist, Østergaard's job is to explore plausible developments and outcomes for the future; he recognises that looking to the future is more an explorative than a predictive practice. "We aren't trending spotters," he said. "We work with different scenarios."
What Østergaard considers one of the worst-case scenarios of Covid is that it accelerates key geopolitical rivalries and results in a more fragmented and dysfunctional global order. His own best case scenario is that it fosters a global collaborative spirit and functions as a "dress rehearsal" that prepares us to solve some of "the world's most wicked problems." But, he added, "There are many ways the future could play out from here. That's why it is called futures studies - plural."
From individual questions, each international must answer for him- or herself (Is this life right for me?) to the questions we all must answer about the world we wish to see after Covid, Østergaard reiterates it is up to us: "We have the choice of where we want to take things in this world."