A Danish man who spent a decade on benefits and now sells sweaters emblazoned with the slogans “Unemployed and proud” and “I can’t be bothered” is riling welfare critics.
Robert Nielsen, 45, was nicknamed “Lazy Robert” last year after he appeared on a talk show and admitted he would rather live on social benefits than take a job he did not find meaningful.
“I have never suffered from the fallacy that it’s necessary to have a job to have a good life,” he said. “I consider myself intellectual. So I would obviously like to have a job where I can use what I know about the world.”
Comments like those have struck a nerve in Denmark, where rightwing commentators claim the generous welfare system has made the population too complacent.
“We will look over all employment measures, and if there are people out there like Lazy Robert, the demands will become more stringent” for them, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said in the wake of Nielsen’s infamous television appearance.
The Scandinavian country has scaled back parts of its welfare state after a burst housing bubble prompted its economy to flatline in 2009.
However, it is still a place where most people leave work at 4pm and where unemployed people can claim up to 80 percent of their salary for two years after losing their jobs.
In the past 12 years, Nielsen has done stints as a flooring contractor and as a janitor at McDonald’s, but it never took long before he was back on the dole.
“They expected too much from you,” he said of the US fast food chain.
He is educated, having studied social sciences and philosophy “for a few years.” One term he even tried Chinese, and he has spent half a year in Zambia as a volunteer.
However, his work never resulted in a degree.
While that may have filled some people with regret, Nielsen is happy with the “status quo.” Just do not ask him what would happen if all of Denmark did what he does.
“It’s a ridiculous question and I don’t like answering it. Both in prisons and in the newspapers there are plenty of people you can point to and say: ‘How would Denmark function if everyone were like them?’” he said. “Everyone isn’t. Everyone isn’t like me and they won’t ever be like me.”
Nielsen’s philosophy studies may have helped him shape his argument that there is nothing morally superior about working.
“If you’re a citizen of Denmark, that’s enough to be offered food and shelter, and clothes to wear,” he said. “At that point 95 percent will then say: ‘I would also really like to have a house, a car, a summer cottage, and to go on holiday in London and Ibiza.’ That’s why they go out and take a job. There isn’t anyone who takes a job for society’s sake.”
By contrast, a study by libertarian Danish think tank CEPOS in June found that a large welfare state had a negative impact not just on people’s willingness to work, but also on their performance when they did have a job.
“The more generous the welfare state, the lower the work ethic of the individual citizen,” Casper Hunnerup Dahl wrote in the report.
Unless politicians radically overhauled the social benefits system, Denmark risked raising a generation who “preferred working as little as possible,” he said.