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It sounds like the good life: relatively rich, reasonably equal, good work-life balance, high employment, general satisfaction. So what do the Dutch have to complain about?
With Geert Wilders, a maverick anti-Islamic populist riding high in the polls, it is easy to imagine the Netherlands as racked by the disorders of the modern industrial era: inequality, uneven life chances, a nasty middle-class squeeze.
The data, at least at first glance, seem to tell a different story. There may be social reasons why some Dutch are leaning towards extremist politics, but in economic terms their lot is pretty decent. There are few nations whose citizens are richer, healthier or happier.
The Dutch paradox hit Alexander Pechtold, the leader of the liberal D66 party, when his parliamentary delegation visited Kabul and introduced themselves to Afghan president Hamid Karzai.
“My colleague said: ‘Marianne Thieme, Party for the Animals’. He looked at her: ‘Interesting, interesting. We’ll start with a party for human beings, but maybe in 50 years…’,” recalled Mr Pechtold. “Sometimes I really think we are a little bit spoiled.”
Here the FT sifts the data on Dutch life — and looks for the discontent that may hide behind the headline figures.
What is Dutch for satisfied?
Compared with citizens in other advanced economies, the Dutch are content. Their life satisfaction measure is up at 7.3 — well above the average of 6.5 for members of the OECD, the “club” of developed nations.
That may in part stem from a comfortable balance of work and leisure. Dutch workers spend more time out of the office, on recreation and with their families, than virtually any other OECD country. Virtually no employees report having to work exceptionally long hours — compared to almost one in eight British workers.
Not short of work
The Netherlands has an economy that puts people to work. About 74 per cent of the working-age population are in jobs, compared with 64 per cent in France.
That goes for the young generation too. Under-25s are struggling in most advanced economies. Yet almost two in three young Dutch youth are in employment, compared with less than half in the OECD as a whole.
Earning and exporting
Even by European standards, the Dutch are rich. The national income per person is around $53,000 — 38 per cent higher than in Spain and Italy and 21 per cent more than in the UK. The Dutch are pretty equal too: wealth is more evenly split than in most countries.
All that wealth sits on a big current account surplus. It stands at more than 8 per cent of gross domestic product this year, the third-largest in the OECD. Behind that lie strong exports of agrifood and chemicals, and relatively high savings and foreign investment by multinationals and pension funds.
The Dutch discontents
So what has gone wrong? With the Netherlands, the averages do not necessarily give the whole picture. Trends are important in politics — and on a number of levels the Dutch are showing signs of strain.
The quality of jobs, for instance, appears to be in decline. There has been a sharp increase in the proportion of temporary work and self-employment in the Netherlands since the 2008 financial crisis.
About one in four employees in the Netherlands are on temporary contracts, about double the proportion of the average of OECD countries and 4 percentage points higher than before the crisis. More than half of Dutch employees under 25 are on temporary contracts — and may not be very happy about it.
The economy’s recent performance has been far from stellar. The Dutch economy accelerated in the second half of 2016 — but only after struggling for almost eight years. National income only returned to pre-crisis levels in 2015. And on the whole, the Dutch economy has lagged behind most of its OECD counterparts.
“Whether things are going well is always relative,” said Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia. “Dutch people do not compare themselves to Greece, they compare themselves to Dutch people 10 years ago. Worse, they compare themselves to how they think they were 10 years ago.”
Credit squeeze — and don’t forget the regions
One glitch in the Dutch success story is access to credit. Dutch businesses are struggling for access to finance. About 12 per cent of small and medium enterprises have trouble getting a bank loan, the highest in the Euro area, except for Greece. Among those applying for a loan, the rejection rate in the Netherlands is even higher than in Greece.
High concentration in the banking sector and high interest rates for small loans are among the reasons for the poor lending performance. Nearly 90 per cent of bank loans to SMEs come from three main banks.
Finally there are regional disparities. The Dutch unemployment rate fell to 5.3 per cent in January, still a low level compared with most OECD countries. But they remain far higher than pre-crisis levels. Look at a regional level, and other differences become clear.
Unemployment reached more than 9 per cent in Groningen, for instance. That northern border region happens to be a relative stronghold for Mr Wilders. But in the topsy-turvy world of Dutch politics, nothing is quite that simple. Mr Wilders is also doing well in Zeeland and Limburg — two areas with some of the Netherlands’ lowest unemployment levels.
This article has been amended to reflect that in the Netherlands about 74 per cent of the working-age population are in jobs, not 82 per cent as originally stated. In France the figure is 64 per cent, not 67 per cent as originally stated.
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