Integration may be the ultimate goal for many internationals, but columnist Sarah Redohl argues that it isn’t one we must aim for immediately. She’s not alone; Denmark’s international employers and municipalities have also shifted focus from integration to anchoring.
Text: Sarah Redohl
Four years ago almost to the day, I made a New Year’s resolution to learn German. I was entering my second year living in Germany, and I’d picked up just enough German to order coffee and ask where the oat milk was at the grocery store.
Several months into the new year, I was excited to have expanded my language skills into small talk. But, by the end of the year, we unexpectedly found ourselves starting a new chapter—one which rendered German pointless. Like most resolutions, my goal was long abandoned by the stroke of midnight the following New Year’s Eve.
When we ended up in Denmark in 2020, I was torn between my desire to learn Danish and the memory of how quickly life abroad can be upended and my efforts to integrate rendered pointless. At least my ever-diminishing German is spoken by 130 million people worldwide, compared to just 6 million Danish speakers. I asked myself at what point would it make sense to expend the time and effort to learn a language as challenging (and limited in utility) as Danish? If we lived here for two years? For five years?
Anchor or integrate?
In early 2021, I spoke about the integration of Denmark’s international labour force with Danielle Bjerre Lyndgaard. She’s the director of global talent and mobility at the Confederation of Danish Industry (Dansk Industri, or DI), an organisation representing approximately 18,500 companies across Denmark. Lyndgaard summarised my secret concerns perfectly: “Global talent may not come here to stay, so integration may not be their goal.”
“People talk a lot about integration,” Lyndgaard continued, “but I think that’s changing. In the future, we’re going to focus on anchoring rather than integrating.” Definitionally speaking, integration is the act of bringing people into equal participation in a group or institution: participating as an active citizen, living by local norms, speaking the language. On the other hand, anchoring is the act of providing a firm foundation: a sense of community, a social network, a reason to stay in Denmark.
“If an international loves their job, their family seems settled, and they are engaged in the community, that enhances the family’s chance of staying in Denmark,” said Lyndgaard’s colleague, Søren Kjærsgaard Høfler, DI’s political consultant in global mobility. “They may not see a reason to go the extra mile right away. First, they need reasons to stay.”
This sentiment was shared by several municipalities I recently interviewed about the role of international labour in Denmark’s tightest labour market in more than a decade. “When I talk to municipalities, I often hear about their focus on international labour,” Høfler said. “That focus is even greater than before, considering the current labour market.”
Examples abound of municipalities’ attempts to anchor internationals, from establishing newcomer services departments to hiring welcome ambassadors in towns and villages across Denmark. In 2021, Lolland Municipality established Denmark’s first free, public international school, and Esbjerg Municipality opened its own international house. “If internationals don’t feel like they belong, they’re going to move away after a few years,” said Pia Enemark, Esbjerg Municipality’s newcomer service coordinator. “It’s important that the whole family—not just during work hours, but in their spare time, too—feel like a part of the city in which they live.”
Lyndgaard summarised this sentiment well: “We have to help internationals find a way to anchor in Denmark if we want them to stay long enough to integrate.”
The dating game
I’m now entering my second year in Denmark, but I’m not making the same resolution I did when entering my second year in Germany. Instead, I’m focusing on anchoring: joining new clubs, finding volunteer opportunities, making new friends. Some might consider it selfish, insensitive, or even irresponsible. That’s how I felt four years ago, but I don’t anymore.
One international I spoke with, who is both anchored and integrated in Denmark, compared anchoring and integration to dating and marriage. There’s the early stage, where your new partner seems perfect. Then, flaws appear, and you have to decide whether to stick around or cut and run. If you stay, you start building a life together: you fall in love, make mutual friends, meet one another’s families. Each of those events anchor you together. You might get married eventually, but no one would say it’s irresponsible to date a while before such a commitment. After all, breakups are less messy when all you share is a flat and a cat versus a legal union and lifelong vow.
I have to admit, Denmark and I aren’t there yet. I’m still trying to answer the age-old question that defines any relationship, romantic or geographic: Where do you see this going?