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OPINION

WORK

How Swedish writing reflects benefits of shorter work day

BJ Epstein, senior lecturer in literature and public engagement at the University of East Anglia, on what the world can learn from the Swedish work-life balance.

How Swedish writing reflects benefits of shorter work day
Work hard, fika hard. Photo: Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

“You’re very … industrious.”

This was how I was described by one resident when I was living and working in Sweden. And trust me – it was not meant as a compliment.

Because, as I discovered over time, although Swedes work hard and with dedication, they do not think their jobs define them. I gradually noticed that people tended to have a healthy work-life balance, and a sense of themselves that was broader than whatever it was they did to make money.

When I moved to Sweden from Chicago in 2001, I threw myself into building a life, including some semblance of a career. I taught myself Swedish, took language courses, and taught English at a variety of schools and companies. I wrote articles for a number of different publications, did freelance copy editing, and when my Swedish was good enough, I began translating, too. I was working long hours, seven days a week, with little time for much else.

I enjoyed it, but also I felt compelled to do it. As an American from a Jewish background, I was used to thinking that work was everything. Getting a good education and then working your way up is what I believed life was all about. The American dream combined with the hopes of an immigrant, I suppose.

So I felt snubbed and insulted by the man who sneered at my industriousness. But then I began looking around me more and seeing what other people were doing.

There’s a word in Swedish, lagom, that can be roughly translated as: “Not too much, not too little, just right”. It’s “moderate” or “just enough”. And although it is something of a cliche to refer to lagom when talking about Swedish culture, it’s still a good place to start. The concept of lagom, after all, raises a series of important questions.

Why work until I’m burned out? Why shouldn’t I take regular breaks during the day, including the famed fika, for coffee and cake? Why not enjoy the gorgeous Swedish summer by having several weeks off, completely disconnected from work? Why should I always ask “what do you do?” when I first meet someone, as though their job is their most important feature?

As someone who researches and translates literature, with a particular focus on Scandinavian texts, I’ve noticed that Nordic books are less about jobs than their English-language equivalents. For example, Swedish author Kristina Sandberg’s award-winning trilogy about a housewife, Maj, has been extremely popular with Swedish readers, who are fascinated by how the main character lives her life.

She cleans her home, raises her two children, socialises with friends, cooks meals every day, and has no outside occupation. It is hard to imagine readers in certain other countries allowing themselves the time and pleasure to read 1,500 pages filled with such intricate details, though I can’t help but think we’d be better off if we did.

And while comics and graphic novels grow in popularity around the world, perhaps it is only in the northern lands, where moderation and equality are taken so seriously, that comics writers such as Lina Neidestam and Liv Strömquist could be so successful.

Their books have strongly feminist foundations and focus on ideas, not careers. Lina Neidestam’s heroine, Zelda, is barely employed, and spends her time and energy arguing about the major problems facing our world. Liv Strömquist writes about women’s lives, bodies and roles in society, suggesting at times that it’s our focus on capitalism and power that’s making us all suffer. It’s not a shock, though it’s a shame, that neither of these writers have yet had their books translated into English.

Or there’s Johan Jönson, a popular poet whose 500-plus-page collections require the abundance of free time that Swedish readers value.

Swedish culture has taken a step further lately, by making moves towards a six-hour working day. In many of the organisations and companies that have made the change, they’ve noticed that their staff are happier, more productive and more creative, which proves the point that if the employees feel better, they’ll actually do better work. It’s a win-win situation.

Burned-out people cost companies and society time and money. They need healthcare, time off work, replacements have to be recruited and trained. Rested, enthusiastic staff members feel positive about their workplaces and can be passionate about their jobs.

Working less to live well

Some people argue that a six-hour working day simply wouldn’t suit work-obsessed cultures such as the US or the UK. But given how unhealthy we’ve got, with rising levels of obesity, insomnia and stress, something has to change. We’ve turned working hard – and its natural mate, sleeping very little – into a moral issue, or even a fetish. We know the damage that not getting enough rest does to us, and yet we seem unwilling to leave the office, ignore our smartphones, and switch off.

Some companies outside Sweden are trying out a shorter workday and – surprise, surprise – they’ve found that staff are feeling “refreshed” and enjoying the extra time they have for hobbies, friends and families. Time away from work also allows people an opportunity to think about work tasks in new ways and from different perspectives, so they return to their desks feeling stimulated.

Maybe it’s time for more companies and institutions to start respecting their employees and shortening the hours they spend at work. And maybe the rest of the world will be inspired by Sweden, and we’ll start having more fika, more time for leisurely reading about non-work topics, and a more lagom attitude towards our jobs.

Oh, and by the way, I’m still industrious – but within reason. And I never turn down a chance to have coffee and cake.

The Conversation

BJ Epstein, Senior Lecturer in Literature and Public Engagement, University of East Anglia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

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

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