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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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.