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A brief dissection of the national psyche, post-collapse

I’ve been reading over the interviews that I’m publishing in my upcoming e-book and am once again amazed at how sensitive the subject of the meltdown is for many people. When I was looking for people to interview it struck me how difficult it was for some Icelanders to talk about what had happened here. A number of people – in fact, about as many as finally did speak with me – turned me down. Some at the last minute, and without a proper explanation.

The rawness of the situation is also evident in some of the interviews I did take. For example, one gentleman was extremely angry, and I had the feeling this anger masked something else — grief, perhaps, or a deep sense of betrayal. Conversely, some of the interviewees remarked after our session that it had felt really good to talk about their feelings surrounding the collapse, which I found very rewarding.

The most sensitive nerve has to be the one that runs through the banking sector. For a regular worker in a bank, the collapse of that bank and all the associated corruption and possible criminality that surfaced has been enormously difficult to take. In many cases those people have to work alongside colleagues that are implicated in very serious matters, and who may even be under investigation. Outwardly they have have to deal with people who have lost everything, who desperately need money but can’t obtain any, or who are — or were — furiously angry and have taken out their frustrations on anyone at the bank who happened to be in the line of fire. I know of people working in the banks who almost buckled under pressure in those first weeks and months after the meltdown, and who needed trauma counselling.

And then there was the vague sense of guilt that lingered, and the nagging question of whether they should have behaved any differently. As Kristín Jóna, a portfolio manager who agreed to be interviewed for the book, put it:

It’s hard to describe exactly what happens inside of you. I didn’t feel guilty, exactly, but I kept asking myself whether I perhaps should have seen it coming a lot sooner … I think many of us were left with this vague feeling of responsibility and a sense that we possibly could have done something differently.

That vague sense of guilt and even shame seems to linger with a lot of people — even when they did nothing to warrant it. For example, there are a lot of people who feel a great deal of shame at being unemployed, even though the cause of their unemployment has nothing to do with them. Someone explained to me the other day that it’s like a throwback to the past, when being unemployed in Iceland meant that there was something wrong with you. There was always plenty of work to go around, so if you didn’t have a job it had to mean there was some kind of personal problem. Today, of course, circumstances are completely different, but that old shame lingers.


And on a completely different note: I want to give a big shout-out to the people at Visit Reykjavík, who have recognized the value of this site in promoting Iceland and have decided to come on board as sponsors. Yay! I hope you will reward them with lots of traffic — after all, they are THE authority on events and activities in the capital area.



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Michael Lewis April 27, 2010, 9:11 pm

    “…there are a lot of people who feel a great deal of shame at being unemployed, even though the cause of their unemployment has nothing to do with them.”

    To me that seems silly. I think in the UK (US too) there is more of an Anglo-Saxon approach to jobs and labour laws. Its easier to find work and easier to be fired than in Europe. I think its better that way.

    In this day and age (especially in my industry) most of my contemporaries actually expect to be fired at least two or three times in their career.

    Happened to me, made redundant by a European bank – they had taken over a US bank I worked for – and I got canned, called into a room, and escorted out the building.

    Honestly, it never bothered me, didn’t knock my confidence much (then again, I think I’m pretty much what people would call ‘thick skinned’).

    Being fired/made redundant is an opportunity in life. It sure as hell shouldn’t make people feel shame.

  • Rik Hardy April 27, 2010, 10:04 pm

    I hope this doesn’t seem too melodramatic, but it seems to me a possibility that instead of the guilt which people seem to have expected from bank employees, some of the medium-high-placed ones may have experienced a certain amount of fear that their career prospects would be harmed by whistle-blowing on their bosses, so they just waited and hoped for the best.

    Understandable, perhaps, but the regulatory structure should have been in place to ensure that nobody needed to feel worried about reporting suspicious activity (after all, if trust doesn’t exist in a bank, who needs banks?).

    I suspect such a structure was not in place.

  • gloria April 27, 2010, 10:10 pm

    Congrats on the sponsor, Alda. You deserve all the recognition you get. I’ve already gone to the site to view my hotel options for a future (unscheduled so far) trip, ash be damned.

  • Lissa April 27, 2010, 11:35 pm

    I can understand the guilt over being laid off, even when it isn’t your fault. I left my hometown because I’d been laid off twice in a row and was looking at the possibility of a third time. It is just soul killing.

  • sylvia hikins April 28, 2010, 12:02 am

    I can completely understand where you are coming from Alda when you talk about a sense of shame that comes from being unemployed. I recognise this from experiences in my city, Liverpool, in the 1980’s when youth unemployment was over 80%. It wasn’t a case of being fired- it was a case of never having a job to be fired from. And with this came increased health problems, crime,suicide, alcohol and substance abuse. Your young people are going to need special support and help. But I think that your strong sense of community will get you through this horrible time. Let’s hope that that the rebuilding of your economy starts soon.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Rik Hardy April 28, 2010, 1:37 am

    And congratulations on the sponsor!
    This blog is exceptional.

  • Rik Hardy April 28, 2010, 2:21 am

    Am I allowed to post links here?
    Here’s a nice summary of how many people in Iceland are feeling:


  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland April 28, 2010, 3:21 am

    I am unemployed and have been through many job innerviews and I now totally despise the entire system god rot, the workistas and their capitalist scum system, but I have come up with plan B which is to ride all the way with the taxpayer, why not they have plenty of money for bombs,wars and the banks, protestant work ethic ha ha hilarious,

  • Great Eastern April 28, 2010, 8:55 am

    A sense of Deja Vu really. In October 2008 I had an opportunity too look into ordinary bank’s employees as a stranger.
    Utter silence all over the workplaces was the most striking thing. Fear for personal affairs, fear for countrie’s future. It was exactly as horror movies master it: silence is a scariest thing.

    As for blaming someone this is my personal view. I met one of the most professional staff in the bank and it is largely still there. Those employees had clear targets and they did try their best to achieve it. If it was maintaining online banking site they tried their best to keep it online.
    One must ask then: what target in a world were the central bank governors achieving? It did not require a genius to realize something’s wrong with CB expecting government to bailout banks and government expecting the same from CB…
    Well, I think I can answer: even if someone realized were the whole financial sector of Iceland is steaming he/she was paralyzed in a network of “company of friends.”
    Even David The King was not free in his actions. Anyway, it does not cancel the responsibility of leaders.

  • andy April 28, 2010, 9:32 am

    Perhaps some people are going thorugh the 5 stages of grief management (although David appears to be stuck in the denial stage).

    Once the judicial process starts, Icesave is dealt with and EEC membership is looked at, then people will be able to look forwards. In 3-4 years time people may be able to see the humour in it.

    As per redundancy, I agree with Michael – it depends how thick skinned you are. Been made redundant 4 times (including in Iceland) and things have always got better.

    Congrats on the sponsorship.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland April 28, 2010, 12:07 pm

    Ps will have to self employed pushing 50, 49niner right now scrapheap material say no more!!!!

  • Simon Brooke April 28, 2010, 3:49 pm

    @Michael Lewis, it’s one thing seeing redundancy as an opportunity when there’s more or less full employment; it’s a very different thing (as now, in Iceland) when there isn’t.

    I can remember being unemployed, back in Thatcher’s Britain. It was not fun.

  • Joerg April 28, 2010, 10:09 pm

    Being made redundant is far from providing an opportunity in Germany, if you are aged 45+. You will just most likely not get another job or if so, the payment will be much lower than before.

    To some extent, defining unemployment just as an opportunity means to blame people, who cannot find a job, for not grasping their chance. But many just don’t get any chance.

    Btw: Something seems to be different with the comment box. It’s much smaller than before and almost invisible.

  • alda April 28, 2010, 11:05 pm

    Oops, thanks for the heads-up on that Joerg. I was trying to fix something else and hadn’t noticed that it screwed up the comment box. It should be back to normal now.

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland April 28, 2010, 11:09 pm

    @Joerg yes right on, life of riches on Hartz IV ha ha, I am 49+ no hoper, still I have web site to do for someone and a playstation 3 🙂

  • alda April 28, 2010, 11:15 pm

    The discussion going on here? That is PRECISELY why you should be your own boss.

    It can be rough going at times, but at least no one can fire you — not even when you’re 49. 🙂

  • Joerg April 29, 2010, 6:08 am

    “That is PRECISELY why you should be your own boss.”

    That is true, if you have sought-after qualifications. It can even be much better than being employed as you have more influence on your workload and working-hours. But if there is too much of competition, it also can be self-exploitation.

  • Michael Lewis April 29, 2010, 8:48 am

    Saying redundancy is an opportunity doesn’t infer that it is not painful. Alda is right about working for yourself. I know someone who worked in a factory and had to leave – in his 50s – he set himself up as a fly fishing guide. It’s probably not mega bucks, but work-life balance and job satisfaction, second to none.

  • Col Matheson April 30, 2010, 1:12 am

    Congratulations on the sponsorship !
    At last someone has recognized the potential that your blog has in attracting visitors, something we discussed some time ago, and after viewing their site, I am sure it was a wise decision , and shows some recognition of your work in promoting interest in your country.
    Still on a travel note, I have noticed travel posters for Iceland in various countries recently, but one made me laugh.
    We were delayed in Boston for a week due to the volcano and when we finally got to the airport, there high in the departure area was a huge panoramic advertisement declaring…. Iceland…connecting you to the world…

  • alda April 30, 2010, 11:38 am

    Thank you, Col! — yes indeed, and it has been an uphill struggle. If you are a blogger it is amazingly hard to find sponsors here in Iceland (and possibly elsewhere). Amazingly the Director of the Iceland Tourist Board has an email subscription to this site and presumably reads it daily, but when asked was not willing to allocate a few bob in the form of an advertisement to support it, even though she praised my “good work”. I guess if you can get something for free, why pay for it.