Secrets, stargazing and statistics: The story of Swedish demography

You can't plan for the future without a clear overview of what's happening right now. Swedes know that better than most.

Published: Mon 4 Mar 2024 09:01 CEST
Secrets, stargazing and statistics: The story of Swedish demography
From the stars to statistics: The founder of Swedish demographics was also a talented astronomer for the Swedish Academy of Sciences, establishing Stockholm's first observatory. Source: Wikmedia Commons

Indeed, Sweden has a long and proud history when it comes to studying its population - even if there have been a few surprises along the way. Together with Stockholm University, we lay out some fascinating findings from the history of Swedish demographics - and learn more about its future, from Stockholm University Demographics Unit's (SUDU). Professor Martin Kolk

The Swedes are innovators in studying their population - and keeping it a secret!

While civilizations have conducted censuses for thousands of years, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that European powers began examining their population in serious detail. Sweden was the first to conduct an organised, rigorous study. 

In the late seventeenth century, the Kingdom of Sweden began requiring parishes to keep detailed records of households for religious purposes. This was an essential step in understanding how the population was distributed and inspired a wave of interest. 

A century later, the Tabellverket, a regularly updated series of statistical population tables was established.  To enable a more efficient collection of data, a responsible agency, the Tabellkomission, was established a few years later. 

In 1749, the first official, country-wide census was conducted - a milestone in demographics or the study of populations.

Much to officials' surprise, the population was much lower than expected. As a result, the results were declared a state secret for over a decade!

It wasn't until 1764 that population tables would be publicly published, revealing a population of 2,383,113 across what is now Sweden and Finland.

At Stockholm University, demographic researchers are examining over two centuries of data. Learn more about their work 

We know much about Sweden's demographics thanks to… an astronomer

Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin is considered the founder of Swedish demographics. In 1754, he was asked to lead the Tabellkomission and oversee the statistical analysis of gathered data. This work benefited the kingdom's administration and would form the foundations of Sweden's first statistics office.

Pehr would also publish several studies for the Swedish Academy of Sciences, examining birth rates across the kingdom, mortality rates for different groups and how Stockholm's population was growing.

Incredible as it may seem, however, Pehr's demographic work was very much a secondary career. For much of his life, Pehr was far more well-known as an astronomer.

Born in 1717, he grew up fascinated with the night skies and later became a professor at the University of Uppsala. His overarching work was an examination of the orbit of Jupiter's moons.

He was instrumental in founding Stockholm's first observatory, where he also served as the first director.

Throughout his life he was known as a tireless proponent of science within Sweden and far beyond, and his correspondence with some of the most incredible minds of the Enlightenment - over 4,000 letters - has been preserved and published.

Sweden's population continues to grow, but Swedes are having fewer children

Since Sweden began to keep parish records in the seventeenth century, it's been possible to trace population growth in great detail.

For much of this time, growth has been relatively consistent. However, there has been a more rapid expansion towards the end of the twentieth century. From 7.48 million in 1960, Sweden's population has grown to 10.6 million - an increase of over forty-two percent!

However, these records show that the number of children born to each woman - interpreted as the country's fertility rate - has decreased over time. In 1630, when parishes began to record births, the fertility rate was 4.84. In 2024, that is around 1.84.

Much of this decrease can be explained by the massive improvements in reducing infant mortality and introducing better living standards.

While this may seem to contradict the country's growing population, Sweden's growing international role and migration assist in boosting the total population.

Fascinated by the potential of demographic data? Explore Stockholm University's world-class programs in Demography and Sociology

At Stockholm University, researchers are using data from the past to help inform the future

A growing population raises significant questions about the distribution of resources and planning for the future.

At Stockholm University, the site of Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin's observatory, SUDU is diving into the country's population registers.

"I've been researching kinship from a demographic point of view. We're using records to identify how many children people have, how many siblings they have, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, cousins and so on.

"Say you take an individual born in 1985. From there, you can identify his parents and his grandparents. Then, you can locate other children of those grandparents. Extrapolating from that, you can construct quite complete kinship networks.

"This hasn't been possible in many countries because they don't have the records. However, in Sweden, we've started to build a more complete picture using records from the north of the country."

Professor Martin Kolk. Photo: Stockholm University

This research is uncovering startling results regarding how Swedish families are structured.

Martin continues: "Our model of kinship networks indicates that instead of a vertical, generational structure, many Swedes have a more horizontal network, with siblings and cousins. They have more relations to either side of them.""We're doing that because we want to examine social mobility. That is to say, how much socio-economic advantage flows within some families compared to others.

"From our analysis, we find that distant relatives - think third and fourth cousins - are far more similar in wealth than a random person in the population.

"From this perspective, the concentration of wealth within Swedish families can be visualized - and we can identify where it isn't."

"We see that these family members can make an additional transmission of advantage. Children can obtain resources through their extended family, to either side. Wealth is far more 'sticky' than we may have thought."

Over 250 years after Sweden began the close examination of its population, demographers at Stockholm University, like Martin Kolk, continue to uncover insights that guide governments in preparing for the future.

Stockholm University offers unparalleled access to best-in-field research through their PhD programs in Sociology and Demography


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