In defence of the eighties generation

Lazy, self-entitled and spoiled. These are just a few of the choice adjectives employed to describe the generation born in the 1980s, the first generation since Hemingway's to be characterised as “lost.” But how accurate is this stereotype and, moreover, are members of the 80s generation really to blame for Sweden's ailing job market, asks The Local's Charlotte Webb.

In defence of the eighties generation
Photos: Charlotte Webb, L. E. MacDonald, dreamglow

It’s times like these I curse the Swedish personal number. Times when, in the seamy glare of a single halogen bulb (you’ll forgive the creative hyperbole), a prospective employer turns to me, assessing me from under the heavily critical arch of a single raised eyebrow. He has just read the first four digits of my personnummer (social security number), four little digits which confirm, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I do in fact belong to that most notorious of demographics: the 80s generation.

I see the cogs turn. He’s picturing me in bed at one in the afternoon, a cigarette dangling from one side of my mouth, the floor strewn with empty beer bottles, phone to my ear, “Can’t make it in today, I’m afraid. Terribly ill. Damn swine flu’s about, you know how it is….”

Or worse, swanning through the office, jacked in to an iPod, crooning along with the Black Eyed Peas as I lazily feed crumpled sheets of paper into the copy machine.

Four years. Four lousy years and I would have qualified as a Generation X’er. Part of that broad, non-descript group born between 1964 and 1979, the liberal realists who managed to get by without pissing off the baby boomers, who slotted themselves nicely into the developing job market with their decent work ethic and secular morality.

It’s not that I mind being a child of the 80s, per se. Aside from the traumatic childhood memories of shoulder-padded parental figures and tawdry brown wallpaper, we didn’t get a bad deal really. There was Queen. And Cyndi Lauper. Parents that wanted us to have a better deal than they had, working night shifts on a factory line in East London.

Still, I have to admit to being slightly exasperated by the tired stereotypes floating round in the Swedish media, which seem to have bypassed the stages of critical thought to become unquestioned truisms. Like the assumption that the 80’s generation is “addicted to benefits” and virtually allergic to the average workplace.

Firstly because, for all its lengthy stretch of paid parental leave, government benefits and democratic ideals, the Swedish system provides little to no help for new graduates attempting to negotiate the daunting transition between higher education and working life. In countries like the United States, Britain and Australia, internship and graduate level positions are commonly regarded as a useful win-win strategy for employers to offer on-the-job training in exchange for a cut-price salary.

In Sweden, very few such positions exist, particularly within the areas of public relations, journalism, management and communications, where “five years experience” is the operative phrase.

Speaking from experience, the problem for many members of my generation seems to be that crucial first leap from education to working life. Under the strictures of the current economic climate, it seems the majority of employers in Sweden don’t seem to want to waste their time or resources training new graduates.

And before I go on, I do understand what some readers may be thinking:

“Quit your bellyaching, in my day there was no such thing as the ‘entry level position’ or the ‘careers counsellor’.” And you are, of course, correct. My dad got his first job walking into a tailor’s office in southern England and asking if they had any work.

Try that in a contemporary clothing store and you’ll be met with a request to contact human resources and fill in a form, which (they assure you) will be kept “on file” in case anything should ever “pop up”. I’ve been “on file” with 200-odd companies over the course of the last ten years and am yet to hear a “pop” from any one of them.

My point is that the job market facing the graduates of the last five years is completely incommensurable with that of the 1960s, 70s or even the 80s. Jobs are fewer, competition is fiercer, college graduates are more numerous and fields of employment are more frustratingly specialised than ever before.

Try scanning the job pages of your local rag and you’ll begin to see what I mean. I have no idea what a “process developer with emphasis upon logistics” does, but I’m pretty sure my arts degree won’t cover it.

The fact is that the 80s generation is not as complacent, choosy and self-serving as it is frequently made out to be. I work four days a week and study full time. Many of my closest friends work graveyard shifts at crummy jobs so that they can work gratis during daylight hours in order to attain that invaluable first year of experience in their field.

Like N, with a Masters degree in human resources and management, who currently works as a half-time preschool teacher on a salary that would embarrass a McDonald’s employee. In comparison to many of her Swedish contemporaries, however, she’s living the dream.

So it does get my proverbial panties in a twist to hear certain self-righteous baby boomers like Amelia Adamo whinge to Aftonbladet about how all 80-talister (individuals born in the 80s) are “lazy and spoiled”. I’m not sure which iPhone toting, Tiger-of-Sweden-clad twenty somethings she’s had the misfortune to run up against, lounging about in the local sushi bar at three in the afternoon, but I can assure her that those individuals are in the minority.

Nor do we all fit the opposing stereotype: the media-savvy, entrepreneurial wunderkind, racing through the city with a triple-shot espresso in one hand and a copy of The Economist in the other, engaged in impassioned conversation with a hands-free earpiece.

While I’m very happy for anyone who’s managed to build a successful publishing conglomerate by the age of twenty five, I’m still trying to work out exactly what the ‘Dow Jones’ is.

My point is that attempting to categorise an entire generation by means of two rather unimaginative adjectives is a little short-sighted. The fact is that the hyper-technologised, information-soaked corporate labyrinth that is reality in the noughties is an intimidating place, and I think I speak for many 80-talister when I say we don’t have much more of an insight into its mysterious inner workings than our parents’ generation.

At the end of the day, like every demographic, we have our bad eggs. But please, for the sake of inter-generational understanding, take a breath before you next open your mouth to complain about the number of unemployed twenty-somethings haunting the second-hand bookstore in the middle of the day.

We know. We’re the ones who can’t afford to buy the expensive books.

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Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Swedes have a deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol, embodied in the state monopoly on its sale. Although ridden with guilt and hypocrisy, it is a healthy relationship, says David Crouch

Like having sex in church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Those boxes by the checkout sum up my problem with Systembolaget, Sweden’s chain of state-owned liquor stores. The boxes are called ångravagnar, from ångra, to regret. “Psst,” says the sign over each one. “Have you changed your mind? Here you can put back any drinks you don’t want to buy.”

The boxes are there to make you think again – do you really need all that booze? Won’t you hate yourself if you don’t put back a bottle or two? 

The regret boxes seem to serve little practical purpose, because they are almost always empty. Instead, they are there to send a message, whispering “Psst!” in your ear: “Don’t do it! Alcohol is wicked!”

Smiling assistants lurk around the stores, in theory so you can ask them what wine goes best with your food. Nonsense – they are the morality police, another “psst” in your ear. Talking to them feels like going to confession: forgive me, Father, for I am about to sin. Then there are all the TV ads for Systembolaget depicting toddlers being abused by drunken parents, or pious staff saying their aim is to sell less alcohol, not more

As a result, entering Systembolaget feels like having sex in church: a shameful pleasure. Here you cease to be an adult capable of taking decisions for yourself and instead become a wayward teenager who needs to be shepherded towards acceptable behaviour.  

Systembolaget – abbreviated to Systemet, or “the System” – is the embodiment of Swedes’ deeply suspicious attitude towards alcohol. It is institutionalised guilt on national scale. 

This guilt has historical roots. Sweden once had a serious alcohol problem. A century ago, average vodka consumption reached almost a litre a week for every man, woman and child. For decades, the country battled to find a way to bring down consumption, first with rationing and then the state monopoly from 1955.

The guilty view of alcohol lives on in all sorts of ways. Sweden, a nation renowned for embracing modernity and liberal freedoms, still has a significant temperance movement. The snappily named Independent Order of Good Templars has 24,000 members – more than most of Sweden’s political parties – and believes that Systembolaget should close at 5pm and be shut altogether on Fridays and Saturdays. 

In Britain, for example, politicians like to pose with a drink to show they are “of the people”. This could never happen here. I once went campaigning with a political leader in the run-up to elections, and we needed somewhere warm afterwards for an interview. But she declined to enter a convenient bar in case she might be photographed in a place selling alcohol. 

Quite apart from the System’s restrictive opening hours, there are very few stores – just 450, or one per 23,000 people. Until very recently, there were more golf courses in Sweden than places where you could buy a bottle of wine over the counter. (There are 449 golf courses, down from 454 in 2019.)

A recent opinion survey has compared attitudes to alcohol in the Nordics. Sweden emerges clearly as the Nordic nation that is the most uptight about alcohol. Fewer than half (45%) of Swedes say it’s okay occasionally to get drunk; one in five say it is even wrong to get drunk at a party. Finns and Danes come out as far more relaxed about booze. 

There is a whiff of hypocrisy here. In my experience, the best way to liven up a social gathering in Sweden is to uncork the gin and let it flow copiously. Not so long ago, a former government minister responsible for raising the tax on alcohol became so inebriated (berusad) at a party in the Stockholm archipelago that he exposed himself to the female guests. 

And yet, Sweden’s relationship with alcohol is a healthy one. Systembolaget is popular among Swedes, its reputation exceeding that of well-loved brands such as IKEA, Volvo or Spotify. More than three-quarters want the state monopoly on alcohol to remain in force, while only 18 percent say they want wine and spirits to be on sold in other stores

Despite its faults, Systembolaget represents society taking collective responsibility for a drug that has the potential to cause great harm. After decades of free-market liberalism across the globe, it is easy to forget that societies once behaved like societies, instead of leaving everything to individuals and the interplay of supply and demand. 

How refreshing that young people are not bombarded with advertising telling them they need booze to gave a good time. Living here, you would never have any idea that the country supplies the world with that supreme party drink, Absolut Vodka. Consumption is ticking downwards, and fewer than 3 percent of Swedes drink every day

When I see those regret boxes, part of me wants to scream: “Regrets?! No way! It’s been a hard week, let me get wasted in peace.” But the boxes are the price I have to pay for the comforting knowledge that, in this aspect at least, Swedish society takes responsibility for its citizens’ welfare. I don’t like it, but I accept that it is necessary. It is not ideal, but it works. 

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.