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LIVING IN SWEDEN

OPINION: Ten things about Sweden that are actually quite good

The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in many countries, including Sweden, and it is a strange time to be living far away from family. The Local's contributor Richard Orange reminds himself of why he chose to make this country his home.

OPINION: Ten things about Sweden that are actually quite good
Shared parental leave is the single best thing about living in Sweden. Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

I am in Sweden by mistake. Like many other foreigners, I got dragged here for love, on the promise (I might even go so far as to say, downright lie) that it would only be for a year or two.

I look with something between fascination and horror at true Swedophiles: those who came after developing an obsession with Sweden’s social democratic model; those who have concluded that Sweden is the world’s best country after a thoroughgoing analysis of international statistics; those with an unhealthy obsession with Abba and Melodifestivalen.

What I find most frustrating is the consensus culture.

I miss being able to have a passionate, barnstorming argument about literature or politics, where voices and tempers get raised, but you’re all still friends at the end of the night (which I concede may be less possible in the UK post-Brexit than it was when I was growing up there). 

So to witness the way the consensus on coronavirus has developed over the past year has been agonising.

The media’s unwillingness to raise the really big questions until well into the autumn; the public’s acceptance of a performance from the government and its agencies which compares very poorly to those of other Nordic countries, it confirms some of my worst preconceptions. 

But as I see the tone get ever more angry and disdainful, I’m finding myself wanting to defend Sweden. 

It is still, after all, a fairly well-run place. So here are ten things about the country which are actually quite good.

Parental leave and massively subsidised daycare

That fathers are more or less expected to stay home with infant children for as long as six months, and sometimes more, is where Sweden really stands out (along with the other Nordic countries). 

The country’s 480 days shared paid parental leave, at as much as 80 percent of your salary for 390 of them, has huge knock-on effects for gender equality, and for the way the family functions. 

Instead of the mother sacrificing their career while the man continues more or less as normal (which has happened with just about every straight couple I know in the UK), in Sweden both partners make time for childcare.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to take half a year off to look after both my son and my daughter.

People born and bred in Sweden perhaps take it for granted, but it would have been very difficult to do in the UK, and I feel it has given me a very different kind of bond to my children. 

So thanks for that, Sweden. 

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Photo: Magnus Liam Karlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

The ‘lagom’ approach to work 

One of the knock-on effects of Sweden’s more gender-equal parenting is that no one, male or female, is expected to work really long hours. Of course there are exceptions, but in general, it is absolutely OK to clock off at 4pm. In many big Swedish companies, working unusually long hours is more likely to get you a referral to the in-house psychologist than a promotion. 

This doesn’t mean Swedish office life is bereft of back-stabbing. You still may have to play office politics. But when it comes to work hours, it’s ‘lagom’: everyone needs to do just enough hours for the system to function (which it obviously does), but no more. 

This makes family life much more manageable than it is in the UK. Working mothers are less likely to risk total cognitive collapse. Fathers can generally eat with their children every evening and then put them to bed. 

Those without children have much more time and space to play in bands, renovate houses, or do sports. 

The downside, of course, is that there’s very little after-work socialising with colleagues.

Also, as a freelancer, the only way I benefit is that the pressure put on me by my wife and peers prevents me working late into the night. 


Stockholmers taking an early afternoon walk. Photo: TT

The ‘lagom’ approach to play 

Whether it’s nightlife or entertaining at home, socialising definitely seems lower key in Sweden than it is in the UK (something reflected in the smaller number of bars and pubs).

This seems especially the case for parents. My family and friends in the UK will often hire a babysitter and roll home well after midnight. In Sweden, or at least in the circles I move in, people tend to socialise as a family, so a late night just means keeping the kids up past 10pm.  

The sort of smart parties my brothers’ friends put on, where people lay on an impressive spread and serve expensive wine, seem fairly unusual (perhaps I just move in the wrong circles). 

You might think this is a bad thing, but I’m starting to appreciate it. It’s quite relaxing not feeling you have to make an effort to stay up past midnight, or perform socially at glitzy drinks parties. It’s nice to break up adult chat with games with the kids. It may be that I’m getting old. 

Abundant nature 

While most foreigners tend to live in the big cities, one of the things that makes Sweden so special is the extraordinary nature that you can access very easily from even the centres of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö. In southern region Skåne, where I live, nature trails are all mapped out and colour-coded, with excellent visiting centres at most of the big reserves. 

Outside of pandemics, it is easy to get out to nature on public transport, so you don’t even need a car. 

Most of the official trails have barbecue spots, toilets, and rudimentary shelters spread out at sensible intervals, and Sweden’s allemansrätten ‘freedom-to-roam’ law means you are free to camp almost anywhere.

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Someone relaxing by one of Sweden’s estimated 100,000 lakes. Photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se

The seasons (and particularly the summer) 

This is something Sweden has in common with all of northern Europe, Russia and Canada, but the enhanced contrast between the seasons is for me one of the real pleasures of living in the north.

In most of Sweden (but not in Skåne, where I live), you can expect at least a month of proper snow cover every year, and then, when you finally get some sun, the forests explode in greenery and spring flowers. 

I’ve started to love the contrast between the near hibernation of the winter, when social life in Sweden slows down to a near standstill, and everyone huddles home with friends and family, and the summer, when there’s a lot going on.

Summers in Sweden are wonderful.

Most people take at least three weeks off and move to some idyllic part of the countryside, where they then live a simple, stripped-down life of swimming in lakes and the sea, country walks, barbecues, visits to flea markets, berry-picking, and lots and lots of ice cream. 

Elin and Casper, the young couple in the latest edition of SVT’s building and renovation series Husdrömmar. Photo: SVT

How practical people seem to be

In my experience, Swedes loving bonding over doing tasks: chopping wood, painting a house, putting up a new door in the shared office. It perhaps reflects the puritan work ethic: it’s easier for Swedes to relax with one another when doing something useful, without an overhanging sense that they’re somehow wasting time. 

As a result, people here can be very generous with their time if it’s for something practical. It’s almost a tradition to get friends to help you move house, pick up a piece of second-hand furniture, or fix your car in a way it isn’t in the UK. 

I’ve also learned to appreciate the ‘practical Swede’ you see wearing tool belts and many pocketed work trousers at out-of-town DIY supply shops. Sometimes they’re hobbyists, sometimes members of the prosperous class of small-time builder, plumber, or electrician that seems to be a big part of the local economy, at least where I live.

Swedes sometimes seem a bit out of place to me when discussing high culture. The role of the cosmopolitan intellectual comes more naturally to the French, Germans, Italians, and even Brits.

But when they’re sawing a piece of wood, Swedes are in their element. 


A family bike ride. Photo: Ann-Sofi Rosenkvist/imagebank.sweden.se

Bicycles and box bikes 

The UK is catching up in this regard, but I love living in a city where there are fewer cars, and so many people ferry their kids, dogs, shopping, and newly acquired furniture around in box bikes, be they Christiania cycles, Cargo Bikes, or one of the more upmarket battery-powered brands. 

It’s not quite a classless society, but it’s better than most

“It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” George Bernard Shaw opined in the preface to Pygmalion, back in 1912. It’s still a bit true (although it doesn’t seem to have hurt the career of the ultra-posh Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg). 

Economic inequality in Sweden has been on the rise for years, but it remains one of the most equal countries in the world, and is certainly a lot more equal than the UK. 

The parents at my children’s school come from a wide range of backgrounds and somehow it doesn’t matter as much as it would back home. 

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Girls are more likely to make the first move 

This is something I have never in fact experienced first hand (I was the first mover in my only ever relationship with a Swede, which thankfully still continues).

But it seems that for many foreign men who end up living in Sweden, much of the initial appeal comes from the gender dynamic in their relationship. The relative gender equality in Sweden perhaps makes Swedish women a bit more assertive, more likely to talk, less likely to listen, and perhaps more likely to make the first move.  

Perhaps the foreign women who end up moving to Sweden for love find it liberating that Swedish men have different expectations about how they should behave too.

It may be slow, but when Sweden decides to change something, it does it properly 

Parental leave is the big historic example. Sweden didn’t just pay lip service to gender equality, it carried out the big structural changes in society required to make it possible. 

Today, it’s the ambitious transformation of the heavy industry in the north of Sweden, with enormous investments being made to decarbonise the iron ore and steel industry.

The UK as a nation seems much more capable of double-think, of saying one thing and acting in another. When Sweden collectively decides on a change of course, the system somehow works through all the implications and slowly but surely makes the change happen.

The pandemic has arguably shown up the weaknesses of Sweden’s system of government. It may be slow, but once the public enquiry has been completed, and everyone has agreed on what to do, the level of execution can be impressive. 

Hybrit, a prototype plant using hydrogen to reduce iron ore. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Member comments

  1. Regarding the parental leave, I agree that there is an advantage over some EU countries but is far from the best in EU and it has the most complicated way to declare your leave compared to any other bureaucratic activity.

  2. I deeply disagree about the DIY. 18 months in Sweden, I met two, yes two, people who were happy that I’d fix stuff around me (and one of them wasn’t even Swedish). Other than that, people are like “Do you really know what you’re doing?” or “Do you have a license for that?”

    If I see a broken door, I go and fix it (wrong, call a builder). If there’s a broken light switch, I replace it (wrong, call an electrician) and if water is spraying everywhere because of broken pipes? Keep calm and wait for a plumber.

    Seriously, this, the bureaucracy and the fact that a person who’s not fluent in the language and doesn’t put gel in their hair is written off as highly unattractive is what convinced me to move away as soon as my housing contract ends. It’s a shame though. I really tried to fit in and to like the country.

  3. parent leave compensation is good if kid was born here. Otherwise the allowance is very limited even if you pay a high tax. This is ridiculous.

  4. Reserved people that means inability to build friendships. Monstrous layers of bureaucracy. A huge litter problem in the cities, particularly from smokers. Extremely average coffee. Tick tock., tick tock, countdown is on to get out of this country. Oh, and this is country number 5 now that I have lived in, so I do have some perspective.

  5. My partner and I joke sometimes it’s like living in one big retirement village here.
    What about the amount of national bun and dessert days.
    Kanelbullar, pannkakor, semle…even though some of these the traditions are relatively recent that brings about National community doesn’t it.
    On a different note, my partner has struggled with living here since we came 3 years ago, and I have experienced quite extreme bullying at work so we are contemplating moving back home to Australia. It’s sad, as there are good points about the society that you don’t find elsewhere, the focus on family support and health care being the top of the list. But for foreigners it’s tough. Maybe it’s tough anywhere to fit in. Do you always feel like an outsider or does it go away.
    Thanks for the article though, it’s nice to hear someone saying good things about Sweden!

  6. I am very disappointed about your sentence “The pandemic has arguably shown up the weaknesses of Sweden’s system of government.”
    I would rather say Sweden is among the very few countries that withstood the global hysterie and done very right. I live in Germany. People are driven into poverty, old friendships and even families are broken apart and mistrust and hatered is the new normal within society – all without any positive effect on Covid deaths or cases.
    There is a big difference between quick and strict on the one side and reasonable and responsible on the other side. Sweden has done much better than most others and can be very proud while others will have to deal with the social and economic damages for decades to come.

    1. “Sweden has done much better than most others and can be very proud while others will have to deal with the social and economic damages for decades to come.”

      COVID DEATHS IN SCANDINAVIA, TOTAL AS OF MAY 9, 2021

      Norway: 767
      Finland: 922
      Denmark: 2 497

      Sweden: 14 173

      Still “proud”?

  7. Sweden, Switzerland and Canada are the only countries I found to be suitable to live in. Sweden suits me perfectly and it’s a great place to raise a family.

  8. Quite funny to have a comment about income disparity in Sweden and saying we should check the facts. Well I did just that and the official GINA figures show Sweden as the 5th lowest in the EU 27. Maybe the guy was a US Republican.

  9. I’ve lived in some of the world’s most beautiful places like Santa Barbara, California, and Ireland’s
    south-west, but I’m so glad that I now live in Sweden.
    What Richard Orange wrote about the enhanced contrast between the seasons being a real pleasure is so true.

  10. It is important to set the record straight about parental equality: in the end of the day— it does NOT exist. In cases when parents are separated, the government insists the child/children be registered at ONE and only ONE address. This is the Swedish “box thinking”: one person= one address. Even when the child lives exactly equal time with each parent and on paper parents legally have “joint custody”— it is the parent where the child is folk-registered who ultimately has ALL the decision-making power— over schooling, residence, health decisions, etc. Until fairly recently, the privileged parent received all the child allowance, and could decide whether or not to “share” it with the “second-class citizen” parent. In cases of handicapped children, the privileged parent still controls the extra support money. Not surprisingly, in cases of non-native and native parents, it is the native parent who nearly always enjoys the folk-registry privilege, even if both parents have citizenship. Like much in Sweden, the devil is in the details. The “small print” exposes the big promises to be exclusive at best, and at worse, mere rhetoric or strategic statistical games, fooling those who forget the wisdom: “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

  11. Great article. I find myself sometimes struggling to like Sweden, although I really want to. This reminds me of the many positives about being here. I was actually born here, but raised in the UK (Swedish mother and English father) and have lived in quite a few different countries before settling in Sweden once again. I find it hard to get a grip on the Swedish psyche. It seems to exist in tightly coiled layers that elude me. I wonder what the Vikings were really like as a people and what aspects of those personalities are still present.
    This made me sad, “Swedes sometimes seem a bit out of place to me when discussing high culture. The role of the cosmopolitan intellectual comes more naturally to the French, Germans, Italians, and even Brits” because I find that to be true and I also miss the kind of intellectual life that seems relatively everyday in the UK.

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WORKING IN SWEDEN

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

The Local's Paul O'Mahony interviewed Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg, lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics and researcher at the Center for Responsible Leadership about the Swedish style of leadership.

INTERVIEW: Does Sweden have a distinct management style?

Does Sweden have a distinctive management style?

The Swedish style of leadership is often said to be characterised by so-called flat hierarchies, where everyone is able to – and expected to – contribute their ideas and input to tasks, regardless of whether they are in a leadership role or not.

Pernilla Petrelius Karlberg told The Local that there are a number of different aspects which can influence management style, although Sweden does have a distinct style.

“I think that there’s definitely an idea that there is a specific Swedish or Scandinavian management style,” she said. “But I think from a research perspective, it’s much more complex, because we tend to generalise or stereotype.”

“It’s got a lot to do with the company culture and the culture of the country,” Karlberg said, “There’s definitely an idea of Scandinavian leadership, I think we have a common idea of what that is, but then, is it actually practiced everywhere in Scandinavia or in Sweden? That’s another issue.”

“In many of our organisations we talk about Scandinavian leadership where the leadership is very international, it’s a mix of different people from different cultures.”

Sweden is a very individualist society, which is also reflected in Swedish business.

“I think the core of what we talk about when we talk about Swedish leadership is the fact that leaders and managers also call on co-workers to take ownership on the task and individualism comes into business,” Karlberg said.

“It’s even expected, and co-workers take that ownership, and they engage and they take responsibility for the outcome and the result. So it’s the total opposite of micro-management in that sense.”

This culture of ownership and engagement also applies to managers, Karlberg explained.

“To generalise, in a Swedish setting, if there’s a meeting with the boss, the co-workers will expect to be listened to, and to be involved in a conversation and give their opinion on things. And that’s also a way to motivate people, in a Swedish sense.”

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Can lead to cultural clashes

This expectation in Swedish workplaces can lead to clashes if employees from other countries are used to a different system, Karlberg said.

“In another culture, say Finland, for example – I’m just generalising – you go to a meeting with your boss and you expect the boss to motivate you and to tell you what to do. So if you had a Finnish manager in a Swedish context, Swedish co-workers would probably feel neglected or frustrated for not being involved. ‘No-one asked my opinion, I want to share my opinion, my opinion matters'”.

This can also happen in situations where a Swedish manager is managing a group of employees from a different culture or country.

“A Finnish crowd with a Swedish manager might be very frustrated if the manager just asks questions and doesn’t seem to have a direction of their own. There’s just different expectations”.

However, there is also a collective aspect to Swedish workplaces, which foreigners working in the country often pick up on.

“When I work with international crowds, they tend to notice that Swedish co-workers and managers are very collective, they want to have consensus, they have to discuss everything, and it takes forever and it can be very frustrating.”

Swedish co-workers aren’t afraid to speak up though, if they feel that the decision their manager is making is wrong.

“But there are a lot of behaviours where Swedish co-workers will not accept a decision. For example, if they feel that the idea that their manager is bringing is wrong, it will actually be their duty to speak up, not in a confrontational way, but to say ‘Hmm, you know, this idea about doing it this way, it’s probably not a good idea.'”

“And non-Swedish managers might not always appreciate that kind of reaction. And if it continues, and the manager says that this is the way we’re gonna do it, the typical Swedish coworker will insist that this is the best way, and then there is a clash – again, they expect to be listened to and taken into consideration.”

How do you know when a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace?

This need to feel informed and included in decision-making can in some cases make it difficult to understand at exactly what point a decision has been taken in a Swedish workplace.

“It’s a different process,” Karlberg said. “It often involves a calculated plan for taking the time to introduce the decision, discuss it, and make people feel that they have been informed.”

This aspect of the Swedish workplace culture caused issues during the pandemic, when many employees began to work from home.

“Decisions are taken in a much more informal way, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly when something was decided. And we also saw that during the pandemic, that the typical Swedish organisation – which is very non-hierarchical – suffered a lot, because a lot of leadership is practiced in an informal work environment.”

“So when people were taken away from that environment – because suddenly they were working from home – it was sort of, you know, ‘how do we practice leadership now?’, whereas in an organisation with a much clearer hierarchy, it was never an issue where decisions were made or how leadership was practiced, because it was done in a different way.”

“And in the more informal, flatter organisations, we had to find a different way to do that, to translate into the virtual room.”

Despite this, Karlberg does believe that Sweden’s leadership style is effective.

“I would say that it is, yes. We stand out pretty well as a nation when it comes to different types of national measurements of competitiveness. We score quite high on that. Of course, there’s also a drawback, if people don’t want to take that responsibility and ownership, because then it’s not typical that the manager would step up and change the leadership style. So it depends on whether you actually share the same expectation.”

Where does the Swedish leadership style come from?

Sweden’s collaborative leadership style is perhaps a product of Sweden’s history, Karlberg said.

“We have always been a small country, very dependent on export. And that means that we had to adapt to the rest of the world and to other markets, but also having to collaborate – we’re too small to quarrel or fight.”

“This has been a way to bring people together in the same direction – it’s a little bit like how we work with the unions with much more of a collaborative focus instead of being confrontative, because it’s simply not rational for a small country like us.”

There’s also a strong tradition of independence in Sweden, Karlberg explained.

“There’s a genuine tradition of independence in the sense of mutual respect. And of course, a lot happened during the 20th century with the development of equality and the whole idea of individualist thinking. Where we’re individualistic with regard to family, with regard to gender, with regard to our roles in society.”

“I think that plays a part as well, with equality and also that everyone matters in that sense.”

You can hear Paul O’Mahony’s interview with Karlberg in our Sweden in Focus podcast where we discuss all aspects of life in Sweden and shed light on the latest Swedish news. Listen and subscribe.

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