The topic of immigration is not as controversial up here in northern Sweden as it is in the south. Although the recent emergence of beggars has caused some alarm, few people deny that northern Sweden needs immigrants. Even wealthy Skellefteå municipality, one of the richest regions of Sweden, has recently launched Skellefteå 2030, a concerted effort to increase its population from 72,000 now to 80,000 in 2030.
Northern Sweden’s need for new blood is, obviously, inextricably linked to the falling fertility rate throughout the country. Since the late 1800s, the number of children per woman dropped dramatically from 4.0 to around 1.5 in 1999. The rate has upticked slightly since then but has not bounced back to the 2.1 rate required to maintain a steady population.
A recent survey conducted by the Fores thinktank found that without immigration, 220 of the 290 Swedish municipalities would currently have a declining population, including almost every municipality in Norrland.
Northern Sweden has suffered from depopulation more severely than the rest of Sweden because it not only has to deal with the falling fertility rate but also diminishing employment opportunities.
Youngsters in northern Sweden traditionally worked in the forestry or mining industries but growing mechanisation has decimated the workforce of these once labour-intensive industries. Furthermore, the main corporate operators in these industries tended to be large, national companies. Often significant numbers of the smaller businesses in northern Sweden are directly reliant on these large national companies. When these larger companies have quiet periods, or reduce staffing, whole towns suffer from job losses and smaller businesses then struggle to survive. This is why many young people move to the cities. Cities offer greater diversity and opportunities for niche businesses and companies.
Before we had children, my girlfriend and I used to go on northern Swedish road trips. The further away from the coast we travelled, the more run-down the villages became. We even came across a few ghost villages, where entire communities seem to have vanished. It was hugely depressing to see grand old timber homes just rotting into the ground. Most were also in lovely locations, set on a river or in a lush valley.
Northern municipalities haven’t helped themselves by failing to sufficiently grasp the problem until recently. Take the issue of tourism. Tourism is an industry that could plug huge holes in the jobs deficit up here.
For instance, the lake we live on would be a huge tourist destination were it in the UK. But Northern Swedes seem to almost take for granted the extreme natural beauty up here and very few northern Swedes, if any, seem to understand how to market the area. Most realise that the north is a great winter destination but the marketing is extremely spotty and never coordinated. Ryanair recently started flights to Skellefteå but, after a winter of half-full flights, has already suspended winter flights for 2015. This is clearly an absurd situation and one that could have been avoided with a little concerted marketing. With the Ryanair flights, Skellefteå is now as close to London for a long weekend as the Lake District in Cumbria – but nobody in the UK travel media I have spoken to was even aware of the flight.
With summer tourism, however, there is no marketing at all. Summers here are fabulous, with an abundance of lakes and rivers to swim and fish in and huge tracts of wilderness to explore. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of jobs, many of which would be suitable for younger people, could be created if the region decided to take year-round tourism seriously. All that is needed is a little gumption and coordination.
Northern Sweden could attract visitors from afar. Photo: Berit Roald / NTB scanpix / TT
But sometimes locals are a little too close to the problem to understand that the solution is really quite clear. Sometimes it takes an outsider to identify a course of action.
David and Kerstin Carpenter moved to Murjek in Jokkmokk municipality around a decade ago. They, like us, were entranced by the otherworldly beauty of northern Sweden. And they were baffled that the locals almost seemed to think they were helpless to reverse the flight of young people. “Northern Swedes often do not see the beauty around them as people from other countries do. I think this is why they are not so active in promoting it as a destination to move to. We didn't have that problem. We could see the attraction of living here,” says David. “So we decided to do something about it.”
The Carpenters established focusjokkmokk.com, a website that marketed Jokkmokk municipality to the wider world.
“Thousands of people living in cities in Western Europe dream of a house in or near the countryside and a more relaxed lifestyle,” says David. “Many people from Europe and beyond are finding the stress of city life and overcrowding in their countries too much. Too much traffic, sky-high property prices, pollution and crime. Northern Sweden has the antidote to the above issues and also has an extensive list of skill shortages all over the region. Many native skilled workers will retire over the next 10 years and most municipalities are suffering from population shrinkage, or need to develop and expand in order to pay for elderly care and pensions. Our solution has been to ensure as many potential emigrants as possible find Jokkmokk when they’re searching for a place to move to. We then welcome people with the skills and desire to come to Jokkmokk and help them as much as we can to begin their new lives here.”
It’s an approach that’s worked. In 2014 Jokkmokk actually experienced its first rise in population since the 1990s.
The Carpenters are now planning to offer their services to other northern municipalities feeling the bite of depopulation. And they plan to focus on attracting young families, a demographic that is the most attractive to northern municipalities with their ageing populations.
It’s good news that the Carpenters are spreading the gospel of the north and it’s encouraging that municipalities such as Skellefteå are no longer as complacent about their future. They know they need to attract younger people in order for northern Sweden to thrive.
But there has to be a two-pronged approach because municipalities also need to act to staunch the flow of young local people away from the area. It shouldn’t just be about attracting new people. They also need to provide work for their own youth that is not reliant on the older industries – and they need to cooperate. Municipalities across the region need to come together to tell the world just how beautiful Northern Sweden is. Then they need to act in concert to get people over to this glorious part of the world to experience the wonderful scenery, the boundless recreational activities and the extremely friendly people. And they need to do it now.
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