Opinion: Does Sweden’s ‘grey divide’ explain our Covid-19 crisis?

Sweden's strict generational system is central to understanding Swedish society including our scandalous treatment of the elderly during the Covid-19 crisis, writes Swedish columnist Lisa Bjurwald.

Opinion: Does Sweden's 'grey divide' explain our Covid-19 crisis?
Swedish families should think of older generations as more than just baby sitters, argues Lisa Bjurwald. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Research shows that intergenerational socialising is beneficial to the mental as well as the physical well-being of both young and old. For example, grandparents can be a crucial piece of the livspussel (“everyday life puzzle”) for parents with young children, Statistics Sweden has found. Living close to grandma and/or grandpa even lowers the risk of stressed-out parents having to take sick leave.

A rather wonderful idea popular a few years ago, but less reported since, is to allow young Swedes affected by the housing crisis to move into housing for the elderly. Still, it's more or less a forced mixing solution put in place by authorities, a strategy that can never replace a real change of people's hearts and minds. Because a fundamental problem in Sweden is the notable lack of intergenerational interaction and, on top of that, a brutal ageism that strengthens the divide.

Here, 20 to 30 is the most desirable age group on pretty much all fronts, from marketing to employment. Hence the never-ending lists of top 30 Swedish entrepreneurs, policymakers and so on under 30 (the New Yorker's take on such lists is, by the way, a modern classic).

You would think that experience is valued highly in Sweden as we're so slow at graduating from university and getting our first proper jobs, but recent studies show the opposite: discrimination based on age starts at 40 (!) on the Swedish job market. The over-60s are hardly visible at all, especially in politics – a stark contrast to, for example, the US. Swedish public service television has been criticised several times in recent years for getting rid of well-liked 60+ faces, who, in other countries, would be made senior correspondents or the like.

Photo: Naina Helén Jåma/TT

It's telling that when Dagens Nyheter this summer wrote about how the pandemic increases the divide between the elderly risk group and the more carefree (or careless) youth, they described the virus as fuelling the “conflict” between young and old. The quote is actually from a sociologist, Magnus Karlsson, who sees clear signs that the existing divide between different Swedish age groups now manifests itself in a lack of respect, mainly directed from the young towards the old.

Respect is certainly key to better treatment of the elderly and closer relations across generations. In Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and many European societies – in fact, a large part of the world – family members are treated more respectfully the older they grow (possibly with the exclusion of cooed-over babies).


Reporting from Italy at the end of summer, it was clear that they had different priorities than us. Youths made way for the elderly in the streets, official Covid-19 information posters on trains and buses underlined the importance of protecting the country's treasured nonne.

Declaring your love for grandma and grandpa, taking them out on walks, dining with them at least once a week, even living under the same roof – none of it is seen as remotely weird or embarrassing.

In Sweden, we re-connect as adults and welcome their services as unpaid nannies when our kids are toddlers, then hide them away in retirement homes with dreadful food, bad hygiene, scandal upon scandal where senior citizens are found malnourished, lying in their own excrement – and, this year, effectively locked up while a deadly virus was allowed to spread through their homes. What a way to repay them.

Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

So how can we cold-hearted Northerners import a bit of that Mediterranean warmth (yes, I know it's a cliché, but I would argue that in this case, it's 100 percent correct)?

In addition to increasing our respect, perhaps multiculturalism could hold a key. A Swedish writer with Middle Eastern roots wrote recently on her Facebook page about losing a relative and how the ethnic community rallied to her family's side in a show of support, not for a minute leaving them alone, hungry, or without someone doing their washing up. Young and old mixed in the most natural way, finding new friendships in a time of grief.

The comments from the writer's native Swedish followers were disheartening (“I got a digital card from one friend when my grandfather passed”). If we listen to the new Swedes and their experiences of a life where an individual's age matters less than his or her thoughts and ideas, experiences and interests, perhaps we could prevent new disasters such as the Covid-19 care-home scandal in the future – when, let's not forget, it's our turn to become the country's unwanted elders.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.