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LEARN ABOUT SWEDEN

Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden based on statistics alone

A lot of foreigners who move to Sweden did it because they fell in love with a Swede or got a job here. But not everyone. In the second of our Swedophile series, we look at those who came solely on the basis of the numbers.

Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden based on statistics alone
Carlos Velasco studied statistical rankings on eight general areas before deciding to move to Sweden. Photo: Private

Carlos Velasco, a computer programmer from Honduras, began immersing himself in statistics comparing countries around the world after he was forced to leave the US and return to Honduras.

At the time, his home country was wracked by violence due to drug cartels, and his own family of land owners were becoming increasingly affected. He had also been disappointed by his time in the US, finding the country he had dreamt of as a child full of “poverty, inequality and violence”.

“I thought my prior approach based on common knowledge was incorrect, and I should try a rational approach with easily quantifiable data,” he remembers.

“There were official statistics, like homicides, that’s one of the first ones I looked at: It’s an indicator of safety and also efficiency from a security standpoint. That was priority number one for me. There’s also the Peace Index, which takes a few more statistics into account.”

But he also looked at other factors, building a list of eight categories, which he ranked in importance: 

1. safety / peace / murder or homicide ratios
2. economic equality / GDP / cost of living
3. happiness index / quality of living / pollution / transportation index / walkability
4. transparency / corruption index
5. number of tech startups / number of active tech companies
6. overall health statistics for the general population
7. internet connectivity / average internet speed
8. frequency of natural hazards

In 2013, based on these numbers alone, Velasco crossed the Atlantic for the first time in his life, and moved to Sweden permanently with no job contract or any contacts in the country of any kind. 

As he initially came as an asylum seeker, he was sent to a centre in northern Sweden, and it took years before he managed to get residency. But nearly ten years later, he has a job with a major Swedish company and an apartment in Malmö’s seaside Västra Hamnen district. 

“One big change I would make now, is to lower the importance of the cost of living and GDP, but keep economic equality,” he says of his list. “It is really not about how well the individual can do if you’re surrounded by misery, and I think many people that move to high GDP countries overlook this factor.”

He also thinks he should have factored in the ease of finding a place to live. 

“One category I guess I overlooked is housing availability,” he adds. “I had never had that issue before, so it did not occur to me that it would be so difficult to find places to rent.” 

But apart from these small setbacks, he does not regret anything about his decision to base his choice of country on the data. 

“I’m totally glad that I took this rational approach, because I could have ended up in some US city, and this place is so much better. It’s so much cleaner, and I didn’t realise you could live without a car. It’s blown my mind in so many ways,” he says.

He acknowledges that, despite the statistics, Sweden might not be the right place for all people. 

“I don’t think it wouldn’t have been the same for everyone, but based on my preferences, my specific morals and my beliefs, my way of working, and my expectations from society, they were very compatible. Maybe the only the only downside is the weather.” 

READ ALSO: Swedophiles: The foreigners who move to Sweden for a musical obsession

Velasco is by no means alone. 

Elias Haidari, also a computer programmer, moved to Sweden from the Middle East because he views the world very much through numbers. 

“I came to Sweden due to me being obsessed over numbers and statistics, and I always saw that Sweden topped almost every statistic,” he explains. “And the impressions I had of Nordic people, in general, was that they’re pretty chill people when it comes to religion, and that most people in Sweden were non-religious”,
 
JC McDowell, from Temple, Georgia, USA, is also planning to move with his family to Sweden based on the numbers, but has yet to actually take the plunge. 
 
“Me and my family have that dream [of moving to Sweden] because we studied the statistics of nations, but we haven’t made it over there yet. My first visit will be in August,” he wrote. “I’m hoping to network and find some job prospects!”.
 
The Social Democrats 
 
Others are drawn by Sweden’s strengths as a well-governed country, but not on the basis of numbers alone. Mar Jorams, from Italy, had her fascination with Sweden inculcated in her when she was just eight years old. 
 
“It was the early 70s and my teacher – an ex-Partisan with strong socialist ideas – in this school placed in an old building from the 13th century in the oldest part of Rome, was depicting Sweden like a perfect place where everything is idyllic, the people, the houses, the weather, the fashion, the politics.” 
 
“I imagined them like semi gods, with long legs and blonde hair. Then, in my 30s, I met one, I fell in love and I married him. I wonder if I would have felt so hard for it if it hadn’t been for Ms Enrichetta Chiesa. That’s when my life long relationship with the country started I guess. I went to inherit a piece of forest in Lapland, so my bet is that it’s still not finished.” 
 
Milena Milosavljevic, 29, became attracted to Sweden after being an active member of the Democratic Party in her native Serbia, and then visiting Sweden on an exchange program organised by SSU, the Swedish Social Democrat youth party.
 
“Serbia at the time was also called a ‘social democracy’. But it wasn’t a real thing. And in Sweden, it’s absolutely a real thing. And it absolutely works,” she says. “When I came, I fell in love with the whole system.”
 
The exchange programme lasted for two years, with Milosavljevic frequently travelling back and forth for events at the Olof Palme centre in Stockholm. 
 
Then, a few years later, she and her husband decided to move to Sweden, with Milosavljevic arriving in August 2019 to study at Malmö University. 
 
 
“The appeal to me is 100 percent,” she says of Sweden’s system. “I think the policies work, I think they value the things that they should value. Everybody feels equal.”
 
Since arriving, her husband has got a job as a waiter, which is paid much better than it would be at home in Belgrade, and she has finished her Masters degree in politics. They are now intending to settle down and have children. 
 
“t looks like we would definitely like to be here for one big part of our lives,” she says. “I would definitely like to be still here in five to ten years time, and to have given birth to, like, two kids here. If you just compare giving birth in Serbia and giving birth here, it’s such a better experience. So we’re definitely planning to be here for a decade or more.”

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SWEDISH TRADITIONS

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

As we gather for Midsummer, Sweden’s unofficial national day, here are seven things we should celebrate about the country that mark it out from the rest, says David Crouch.

OPINION: Seven things that make Sweden magnificently different

With Sweden preparing to abandon its final vestiges of neutrality to become a Nato member, many are asking whether the country is losing the features that have helped to make it distinctively different as a nation. As we gather for Midsummer – Sweden’s unofficial national day – here are seven things we should celebrate about our home that mark the country out from the rest:

1. Midsummer itself

Imagine having a national holiday that has all the cultural significance of Christmas in Europe or Eid in the Muslim world, but which takes place outside when the sun never sets. That, in a nutshell, is Midsummer – all the anticipation, ornament and tradition of a big religious festival, but without the religion and on a day that goes on and on forever. The whole country moves outdoors and mingles with family, friends and neighbours. It’s like an annual street-party with added singing, dancing, garlands and games. 

Like many Swedish festivals, Midsummer has Christian roots, originating in celebrations to mark the birthday of St John the Baptist (June 24). But that date handily coincides with the summer solstice and a moment when nature is at its best. Christianity fought it out with paganism, and paganism won. The roots of Midsummer traditions are centuries old, but now the only worship that takes place is veneration of the season and exaltation at being alive. This, in theory at least, makes Midsummer a very inclusive festival that reaches over boundaries of creed, colour, age, class or political outlook.

Photo: Anna Hållams/imagebank.sweden.se

So when you raise a glass of aquavit or skewer a chunk of pickled herring this Friday, you are doing more than enjoying the moment – you are celebrating an aspect of life that is quintessentially Swedish.

2. Support for working families 

When I describe to people back home in Britain the Swedish system of support for families with small children, they go green with envy. I am sure you know the stats already, but it’s worth writing them down, printing them out, nailing them to a piece of wood and making a small shrine in the corner of your living room. Then you should light a candle at the shrine every time you drop off your child at the well-funded kindergarten at 7am, or use one of the 120 days a year you get paid to be at home with the child when it is sick, or whenever you take one of the 480 days paid parental leave you get with each offspring. 

It is usually assumed that this is all a residue of Sweden’s leftist past, but that is only one side of the picture. It is true that Olof Palme, the country’s emblematic left-wing leader, talked in the 1970s about the need to “provide children with a stimulating and diversified environment” outside the home and strengthen “women’s ambitions to achieve equality in working life”. But in fact it was centre-right governments in the mid 70s and early 90s who really watered the seeds that Palme had sown. Sweden’s liberals saw gender inequality as inefficient and a brake on the economy. So the system of early years childcare and parental leave is actually a great Swedish national achievement.

The cost of childcare is capped in Sweden, so you’ll never pay more than a certain figure. Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB scanpix/TT

3. A melting pot 

Love it or loath it (lots of Swedes do), immigration to Sweden is a fact of life. According to this year’s numbers, just over one-third of registered inhabitants of this country have some sort of foreign background, namely they were born abroad or born here to a foreign-born parent – although this also includes those born abroad to Swedish parents. A quarter of the population has a language other than Swedish or one of Sweden’s minority languages as their mother tongue – that’s the highest proportion of any country in the world. 

The transformation from a largely monocultural society has taken place at lightning speed, during barely three decades. One in five of today’s Swedes were born abroad, putting Sweden in 6th or 7th place in the world in terms of the proportion of foreign-born people after Luxembourg, Australia, Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel. The proportion of non-white Swedes is at least 20% (30% among children and young people), which means that Sweden is in 3rd or 4th place in the western world after the USA, Australia, and possibly France.

Speaking personally, I find this hugely stimulating and exciting. Large-scale immigration comes with lots of challenges, but if Sweden can only get it right, it could be a beacon to the world. 

4. The hidden welfare state 

We all know about Sweden’s famous tax-payer funded welfare state, which is now rather frayed around the edges thanks to several decades of upheaval (with the possible exception of childcare, see above). But the country also has a set of large and powerful institutions that together constitute a “hidden” welfare state that even many Swedes are barely aware of. These are the organisations of the omställningssystemet, or transition system. 

A large majority of Swedish companies typically pay 0.3 per cent of their wage bill each year into the trygghetsfonder, or job security councils, which are run by the trade unions. TRR, one of the largest agencies, is backed by about 35,000 private sector companies with nearly 1 million employees – almost a quarter of the workforce. If you lose your job, a job security council will be there to give you counselling and training to help you get back into the workforce as quickly and painlessly as possible. 

The transition system is an important part of explaining how Sweden’s economy maintains its global competitiveness. Helping the unemployed back into work, enabling them to improve their skills or recover from the stresses of redundancy, has a strong economic rationale. It makes it much easier for companies to downsize, restructure, and even close factories altogether. This is a great Swedish invention, and one that deserves much more recognition internationally. 

A customer buying spirits at Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

5. Systembolaget 

Love it or loath it (most Swedes love it), the state alcohol monopoly is a fact of life. In a country that has privatised almost everything that can’t be nailed down – including the postal service, the trains, telephones, schools, elderly care and aviation – Systembolaget sticks out like a sore thumb. As a result, it is easier to find somewhere to play a round of golf in Sweden than a shop where you can buy a bottle of wine over the counter. 

It is paternalistic, moralistic, clumsy and exasperating. But Systembolaget is also a caring institution that represents society as a whole taking responsibility for citizens who are vulnerable to the ill-effects of a dangerous drug. If only the same principle was applied to gambling or pornography, for example, the world would be a better place. More broadly, Systembolaget is an embodiment of public service, an unfashionable but essential element of any functioning society. Hooray for Systembolaget, a great Swedish invention!

6. Gadgets and gizmos

If you have played a game on your telephone today, listened to music online, or video-called a friend, the chances are that you have used technology from a Swedish company. You can bid on a house via SMS, and credit a friend’s bank account instantly with your mobile phone. In the European Commission’s 2021 European Innovation Scoreboard, Sweden again ranked as the most innovative country in the EU, just as it has done ever since the index began in 2001.

The country has far more world-leading tech companies than it should in relation to its population. During this century, Stockholm has developed more billion-dollar tech companies, known as “unicorns”, than any other city in Europe. Successes include names such as Spotify, Skype, iZettle, Klarna, Trustly, Mojang and King. Sweden is currently in a sweet spot for innovative enterprise, creating a fertile environment for people who want to turn ideas into stuff that can actually change the world. 

7. Work-life balance 

In Sweden, 25 days holiday a year are enshrined in law. That means anything less is illegal, irrespective of your age or what you do for a living. Many jobs come with more days off than the statutory minimum. And for many employees, neither weekends, bank holidays (röda dagar), Easter, Pentecost, Midsummer, Christmas or New Year’s Eve are counted as part of your 25 days.

This is a great start for anyone seeking a healthy balance between work and home life. During their frequent days off, Swedes don’t sit around watching daytime TV. The concept of friluftsliv, or open-air life, is deeply embedded in Swedish culture and means spending time in the great outdoors for spiritual and physical wellbeing. The country boasts 25 organisations with 1.7 million members based on friluftsliv, while around a third of Swedes engage in outdoor activities at least once a week. This is closely linked to allemansrätten, the legal right of public access to anywhere in nature. 

But what about all that other crazy Swedish stuff?

I have tried to sum up those features of life in Sweden that are fundamental, structural, or so deeply engrained that one cannot imagine any major change taking place without some sort of major upheaval. But I am sure I have overlooked some things. Do please write to The Local with your suggestions for other reasons to celebrate Sweden and Swedishness here: [email protected] 

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

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