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Please can I return this husband?

Published: 13 Nov 2007 18:55 GMT+01:00
Updated: 13 Nov 2007 18:55 GMT+01:00

Buy a sweater at H&M and you don't expect it to last forever, but it will look good on you for the time being. With Sweden's high divorce rate, Swedes have a pretty similar attitude to spouses, says Sarah Tarnowski.

Swedish chain stores Ikea and H&M have enabled people around the world to buy fashionable clothes and bright, trendy furniture at knock-down prices. The cheap prices mean you can buy a t-shirt today and not worry about whether you will still like it a week from now.

But clothes and furniture are not the only things Sweden has turned into disposable goods - the country has also become a pioneer in disposable marriages, and has the dubious distinction of being the world's divorce capital.

While buying clothes and getting married may seem like two very different choices, some sociologists argue that the low-commitment attitudes to both are essential parts of the Swedish dedication to modernity.

Cheap fashion

At H&M headquarters in Stockholm over 100 designers, buyers, and pattern makers knock off catwalk-worthy clothes for sale in the company's 1,420 stores throughout 28 countries.

"We offer our customers new and updated fashions every day," said Camilla Emilsson Falk, Press Officer for H&M.

A key element of H&M's success is that it offers price-conscious consumers the chance to buy clothes that don't need to last.

"At H&M you can keep up with the latest trends without going broke. I don't expect the clothes to last forever, but why would I want them to," said one Swedish girl I met leaving H&M with two bags of clothes.

Another shopper explained that she loves the flexibility and choice offered by H&M: "If there was not a store like H&M, I may only be able to afford one designer jacket. Now I can have several. Even if I never wear a purchase, it is always nice to know I have the option."

Of the 28 countries that sell H&M, Sweden is one of the largest in terms of total sales. "It is not just the new ability to buy a shirt for one occasion that has made H&M so popular, but the idea that everybody can now afford trendy clothing. Fashion now transcends class. It is part of socialism," said Swedish designer Erica Andersson.

The perfect table (for now)

Ikea is another Swedish super-brand that is recognized worldwide for its inexpensive, chic items. British design magazine Icon named Ikea "the most influential force in contemporary design."

Ikea brought about a new dawn of furniture shopping, allowing customers to buy a living room item without the intense rumination furniture shopping used to require. "I can go into Ikea and furnish my entire apartment in one day or my wife can redecorate because her tastes change," said a Swedish man hauling an Ikea box to his car. Granted with each item you buy, you must also be willing to do the labor required to assemble the pieces and find space to store last seasons Ikea buys.

"The core of our business is modernism," explained Mats Nilsson, creative director of Ikea, USA. "In Swedish home furnishing, you are never finished; a house is something that continuously grows. It's an ongoing process. Needs change, families change, and if nothing else, you get bored."

By following the Swedish approach of remaining modern to avoid boredom, Ikea has the average European making 3.9 visits per year to one of its stores. "Ikea-ism, a form of consumerism that is based on temporary living, and reflects the kind of impermanence you get when you buy a shelving unit from Ikea – simple to assemble and just as simple to take apart," explained Chris Lefteri, a UK-based design consultant.

Tying a loose knot

If buying an Ikea table is a short-term commitment, plenty of marriages have even shorter life-spans.

Some 55 percent of all Swedish marriages will end in divorce, giving Sweden the highest divorce rate in the Western world, according to the latest statistics. In the US this figure is 46 percent; in Italy it is just 10 percent. If you factor in the number of Swedish couples who choose never to marry, but live and have children together, then break-up, the "dissolution rate" becomes even higher.

People, who don't marry, don't officially divorce and therefore bypass being registered as broken marriages. Only about 60% of Swedish women will ever marry, thus the out of wedlock birthrate hovers around 50%.

Statistically, Swedes divorce more, marry less, and have more out of wedlock children than any other industrialized Western nation.

Always looking for something better

The consumerism of Ikea and H&M and the high divorce rate can both be seen as reflections of Sweden's commitment to modernity.

"Design in Sweden is based on being modern and innovative. Antique shopping is becoming more obsolete and interiors often follow one matching motif. Therefore, people don't think in terms of passing down. It is a movement towards individualism," said Alexandra Kostrubala, a Swedish artist and analyst.

Statistics confirm the Swedish attraction towards modernity and individualism: 75% of young Scandinavians find that “having many options” and “feeling free” are vital to happiness, according to a study by research analysts and authors Dr. Mats Lindgren, Bernhard Lüthi and Thomas Fürth in their book The MeWe Generation.

Swedes are always looking for something better, argues Lindgren:

“The need for constant renewal is a large part of the Scandinavian mentality. In Sweden, renewing is still seen as an important strategy to achieving a good life. Renewal is the mantra of the modern man.”

When basic needs are taken care of by society, it creates a culture that can focus on improving rather than surviving. “With no visible class barriers, people are given a smorgasbord of opportunities. This complete freedom and range of choice creates a need to always look for something better, to modernize, to improve,” said Lindgren.

This longing for improvement does come at a cost, however, “I must say it's a bit sad to see that many people seem to have lost the ability to find comfort without a constant change to something that you believe will make you happier. It is hard to ever feel satisfied when you are constantly considering better options," explained one Swedish man.

Perhaps looking for something better has moved from shopping habits into relationships. "Sweden is a modern country and in the modern world, people are reluctant to make strong commitments, if they don't have to," said Sociologist David Popenoe, Chairman of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. The result is that society ends up with increasingly fragile relationships.

"The very low marriage rate and high level of parental break-up are such non-issues in Sweden, something which few Swedes ever talk about. This should be, in my opinion, a cause for national soul searching," said Poponoe.

A few things have prompted Swedes to cut off marriage commitments: Religion, cultural attitudes, and welfare. Sweden is a secular country and studies confirm that, throughout the West, religious countries have lower divorce rates. "Any religious or cultural stigma in Sweden against cohabitation is no longer present; it is regarded as irrelevant to question whether a couple is married or just living together," said Popenoe.

The Scandinavian welfare system supports independence, arguably displacing family members as main providers by guaranteeing jobs and lifelong income to every citizen. The reality is that it is easier to divorce, when you have the comfort of a state that will support you on your own.

Welfare policy may also be the secret to the H&M and Ikea revolution. High taxes result in less disposable income and citizens, therefore, look for cheaper solutions. Or maybe in a homogenous nation, people may look for change in other ways, such as changing their décor or wardrobe more frequently.

"Swedes are individualistic. Socialism protects the collective comfort and organizes citizens. But it also gives room for people to look out for their own personal desires without having to worry about other individuals, since they are taken care of by the state," said Jan Trost, Sociology professor at Uppsala University.

If Ikea-ism characterizes the nation's shopping habits, the easy, commitment-free attitude it represents is also easily visible in the country's easy-come, easy-go attitude to marriage. The reasons for commitment-phobia in both areas are complex, but the phenomenon is deeply-rooted in the national psyche.

Sarah Tarnowski

Paul Rapacioli (paul.rapacioli@thelocal.com)

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