In 2014’s Scandimania TV series, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall depicted Sweden as a utopia built on healthy, mindful and family-centric living.
This perfectly summarised the popular British perception of Sweden, but it was a surprise for the Swedes themselves.
The truth is more mixed. This week’s headlines have made that clear. Sweden is one of the world’s most technologically advanced nations, but this week an IT security scandal has destabilised the government and may trigger a snap election.
So in this essay I want to describe some of the inequalities and imperfections that persist in Sweden, contrary to what you read in the British press. We really enjoy living here, but we want to help you see a little of both the light and the shade.
Job security is high once you pass your six-month probation. But we know of three expats who have lost their jobs after five months – suspiciously close to the cut-off at which they would have been made permanent.
Parental leave can be split equally. But very often it is split just like the UK, with mothers staying at home with the kids much longer than fathers. Only 14% of couples share parental leave equally, and in total only 25% of parental leave is taken by fathers rather than mothers.
Stockholm is generally very safe the entire country has barely 100 murders per year in a population of 10m. But just like other capital cities, there are pockets of much higher criminality. We have friends living in a suburb that has seen two stabbings and a shooting since the start of the year.
Property ownership is the norm (70% of Swedes own the place they live, similar to Britain). But for those who cannot afford to get on the housing ladder, the rental market is brutal. We have been fortunate to be relatively attractive to landlords (professional British family with stable jobs at well-known companies). But competition is so fierce that if you do not tick those boxes (like a Russian couple we know) it can take months to secure even a short-term contract for an unappealing apartment.
Sweden has a high degree of economic equality (with the sixth lowest Gini coefficient in the world). But goods and services are expensive. Sweden ranks near the top of the price list for food, booze, clothing, utilities, household supplies, consumer electronics, transport, entertainment, and pretty much everything else measured by the EU’s statistics service.
We have found Swedes to be healthier and more relaxed than Brits. Roughly 1/3 of adults we see on the weekend are sporting activewear). But psychiatric disorders are 12% more common in Sweden than in the UK. And the suicide rate in Sweden is 70% higher.
Sweden has historically welcomed immigration. But there was right-wing anti-immigration rioting in Stockholm last year, and border controls have been now tightened – even the crossing between Copenhagen and Malmö (made famous by The Bridge) no longer permits free passage.
Stockholm feels like a friendly city, but it can be hard to settle here. Only one in four expats who arrive in Sweden without a partner have found one after five years.
Job security, gender equality, public safety, property markets, consumer prices, social integration, finding love. Don’t believe everything you see on Scandimania.
The reality is more complex, but we have been happy here.
Sweden is closer to utopia than most.