Is the world becoming a better place? Checkpoint Sweden

Is the world becoming a better place? This question will be asked by researchers when the first science week of the 350th anniversary celebration takes place in March. Debatt i Lund panellists will start off the week by approaching the question from different angles, followed by five days of discussions and lectures on the standard of living, human rights, war, terrorism, climate change, and more.

Is the world becoming a better place? This question will be asked by researchers when the first science week of the 350th anniversary celebration takes place in March. Debatt i Lund panellists will start off the week by approaching the question from different angles, followed by five days of discussions and lectures on the standard of living, human rights, war, terrorism, climate change, and more.


LUM has decided to tap into the zeitgeist of Sweden, and is having economist Andreas Bergh, researcher in social work Håkan Johansson, economic historian Kerstin Enflo, sociologists Malin Åkerström and Roland Paulsen, political scientists Anders Sannerstedt, Johannes Lindvall and Jan Teorell, gender studies scholar Diana Mulinari, and researcher in energy and environmental systems Lars J. Nilsson give us their views on Sweden today and where we are headed.  

Swedish welfare is of world class, and nowhere in the world are people as concerned with enabling fathers to stay at home with their children when they are young. Meanwhile, the old image of Sweden is being challenged: income inequality is increasing rapidly, our borders have been closed and in Parliament there is an anti-immigration party which continues to grow.

What is the forecast for the future? Are we heading toward consensus or division? Is Sweden becoming a better place?

Our own and the outside world’s image of Sweden has become more polarised. We often hear statements such as “Things aren’t what they used to be” and “The country is being torn apart” from both sides of the political spectrum, while others confidently point to the steadily increasing standard of living. In international contexts, US politician Bernie Sanders uses Sweden as a shining example, while Hungarian and Polish leaders paint a picture of Sweden as a multicultural worst-case-scenario with “no-go zones” and increased sexual crime.

Håkan Johansson

Håkan Johansson. Photo: Kennet Ruona

Looking at international surveys, Sweden is a model country which is generally ranked high, according to Professor of Social Work Håkan Johansson. Sweden performs well in terms of high employment rates, and low poverty and long-term unemployment, and is also ranked among the best in terms of democracy, with low corruption and strong confidence in public authorities.

“However, there are two aspects where the ideal image falls apart. The economic inequality is increasing. Although the poverty levels here are lower than in most other EU countries, we have one of the fastest growing income gaps within the OECD. And we are bad at integration. It takes a long time for refugees to find work and become integrated into society”, says Håkan Johansson.

Sweden is still one of the most economically equal countries in the world, but there is a growing gap between insiders – people with jobs who are included in the welfare system – and outsiders. The richest have become extremely rich – one per cent owns 40 per cent of the total wealth. The poorest, who never receive permanent employment – many of whom are immigrants – have fallen behind and risk being stuck in this group; after five years, four out of ten are still here.

According to Håkan Johansson, the political discussion in Sweden has also changed.

“Today it is less about left and right, and more about ‘us and them’ and who is entitled to what.”

Kerstin Enflo. Photo: Apelöga

Kerstin Enflo. Photo: Apelöga

This was not the case when the “Swedish model” was developed after World War II. The welfare state was built on the principle that “everyone is included”, regardless of class geographical location, says economic historian Kerstin Enflo, who has mapped Sweden’s regional inequality.

“The highest level of equality was achieved in 1980. At this time, Sweden was unique – in terms of differences in income, both geographically and with regard to class”, she says.

A person who was part of the economic elite at the time made nine times more money compared to an industrial worker. Since 1980, the most rapid increase in prosperity can be found in major cities, particularly in Stockholm, and has led to an increasing economic gap, mainly between classes, but also between urban and rural communities. In 2016, the average CEO made as much money as 54 industrial workers, according to statistics from the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO).

Despite increasing inequality, the welfare state has maintained high legitimacy in all income groups, largely because the system has been based on a “Robin Hood policy”, but is about redistributing resources over time for the same individual, says Enflo.

“However, when rural communities lose schools, hospitals and police, legitimacy decreases. This development has gone on for quite some time, but has not been taken seriously by influential people in big cities: politicians, journalists and even by us researchers. In a community without services and job opportunities you can be sceptical about immigration without being a racist”, she argues.

Diana Mulinari

Diana Mulinari. Photo:Gunnar Menander

Sociologist and Professor of Gender Studies Diana Mulinari argues that popular discontent is largely caused by a less effective welfare system. Sweden was unique in that its middle class citizens would pay their taxes without complaining, as they enjoyed good healthcare, good schools, etc. Today there is not the same level of acceptance.

She argues that the impact of neoliberalism is the main cause of the problems in the welfare system we see today. When Sweden was swept up in the wave of privatisation and deregulation in the late 1900s, thousands of people lost their jobs in the public sector, not least in healthcare. Today, we are seeing the effects of these events.

“No other country has applied the same level of neo-liberal governance – New Public Management (NPM) – within the public sector, and there is a lot to suggest that the rationalisations within healthcare have gone too far”, says Diana Mulinari.

The “Swedish model” that could have handled these problems no longer exists, she says; the historical contract between unions and employers has been disassembled. The unions have been weakened and working conditions have deteriorated.

Groups are pitted against one another in the debate, and right-wing populists who blame immigration have been able to exploit this discontent.

“The advances of the Sweden Democrats party are worrying, but the major challenge is the welfare crisis”, says Diana Mulinari.

Swedish people feel less safe today compared to a year ago, and almost a third of all women are afraid of going out in their neighbourhoods at night, according to a report from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (BRÅ). Overall, most types of crimes are decreasing and general security in society is increasing, according to the report. There is a tug of war with regard to statistical interpretation. Is there reason for concern? And how concerned are the Swedes?

Malin Åkerström, Professor of Sociology, specialising in criminal science, argues that surveys where


Malin Åkerström. Photo: Mikael Risedal

people are asked about their sense of security are problematic.

“The answer reflects the question. If you ask someone of they are scared to go out in their neighbourhood, the answer may very well be yes. But when Danish researchers studied people’s sense of security by identifying topics of conversation they found no signs of such insecurity”, she says.

She argues that scare-mongering in the media may play a role in the perceived fear. Other reports show that Swedish youth generally follow a European trend and are better behaved than their reputation would imply.

“Sure there are problem areas and youth who engage in harassment and gang violence, but the younger generation in Sweden as a whole drinks less and is less involved in crime than before”, says Malin Åkerström.

Refugee immigration is a major topic of discussion in the debate, and the right-wing nationalist party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), have gained close to 20 per cent in voter support in the polls. A study by the SOM (Society, Opinion, Media) Institute in Gothenburg a few years ago showed that many Swedes are worried about immigration, but even more are worried about xenophobia.

Which voter groups are attracted by the Sweden Democrats? There is a theory that SD’s voters are the losers of globalisation, but this is not true, according to Professor of Political Science Anders Sannerstedt, who has analysed the electorate.

“The Sweden Democrats are a working-class party with a predominance of men and elderly people. SD voters have jobs and are not exceptionally afraid of losing them compared to others. They are happy with their lives, they have interests, and are included in social contexts”, he says.

The Nazi label is gradually being washed away and the party is focusing more on welfare issues, although immigration policy is still the main issue to its voters – who want to return to a Sweden without non-European immigration.

“Elderly people are generally more apprehensive about immigration than others. A paradox in this context is that the resistance to immigration is slowly decreasing in Sweden, yet SD continues to grow”, says Anders Sannerstedt.

Andreas Bergh. FOTO: Evelina Olsson

Andreas Bergh. FOTO: Evelina Olsson

Economist and welfare researcher Andreas Bergh objects to the polarised image of Sweden, and says there are reasons to be hopeful about the future. The world and Sweden have become a better place, and the capitalist welfare state has delivered.

“Fewer babies die, we live longer, and have increasingly more freedom of choice and prosperity.”

However, there are a couple of major challenges, argues Andreas Bergh. The first concerns the institutions upholding law and order: courts and police. They are currently under pressure and in order to deliver they need to adapt to the new conditions of globalisation. When public authorities fail to live up to the expectations, it is damaging to public confidence.

“A concrete example is when Roma beggars – EU migrants from Eastern Europe – set up camp on a private plot in Malmö. According to the Swedish Social Services Act, the social services should intervene in case of emergency, but what does that mean in a situation like this? I believe they should have been able to agree to provide the migrants with toilets and running water. This did not happen, and the sanitary conditions became unsustainable. Meanwhile, the police did not act on the property owner’s claim to evict the Roma. Things were left up in the air – intervention did not take place until things had gone very far.”

MALM÷ 2015-11-03 EU-migranter i l‰gret p Industrigatan, v‰ntar p att bli avvisade. Tidigt p tisdagsmorgonen inledde polisen en insats fˆr att tˆmma l‰gret. Foto: Drago Prvulovic /TT / Kod 70040

MALMÖ 2015-11-03 EU-migrants in their camp in Malmö.
Foto: Drago Prvulovic /TT
















Bergh further argues that the open society and freedom of movement for workers have been good for Sweden. He believes there is room for a generous refugee policy as well, but the responsibility for housing and support should quickly be transferred to the refugees themselves.

According to Bergh, the other major challenge concerns employment. Sweden could end up in a deep crisis if the cost of refugee reception and insufficient integration coincides with a financial crisis. And there are worrying signs that the country is at the brink of such a crisis.

“We need more simple jobs, as many refugees have little formal education and work is the best way for people to become integrated. If we can’t handle integration, and we are hit by a crisis, the situation could become significantly worse than what we experienced in the 1990s”, he says.

Roland Paulsen, a sociologist known for his critique of the “work-based society”, agrees that the world as well as Sweden have become a better place and more prosperous in many ways, but he is also critical of the increased societal inequality.

“The gap between the current state and how good it could be is growing. The GDP per capita has doubled since the 1970s. If the wealth had been distributed fairly, the healthcare, education and social services sectors would have enjoyed twice the amount of resources. However, this is not where the wealth has gone.

He argues that this represents a blind spot in the debate, and in a similar way there is a fixation on costs.

“Why don’t we talk about wealth instead and where it all goes? And why don’t we compare the cost of refugee reception to, for example, RUT and ROT deductions [tax deductions for domestic service work], interest deductions, or the previous government’s income tax deduction?”

Research has an obligation to explain the economic magnitudes and provide politicians with tools. Not least economists are partly responsible for the political capitulation to economic power, argues Paulsen.

“Politicians behave as if they were administrators – they lack vision and do not dare to act radically, despite the proud Swedish tradition of doing so.”

Globalisation is not only repressive but also helps disseminate good ideas, he continues. Recently, the news that Sweden introduced a six-hour work day was spread across the globe – but, unfortunately, it was untrue. A temporary experiment at a nursing home turned into a law that applied to the entire country. A mountain was made out of a mole hill – by using the brand of “the Swedish model”.

It is as if there was a desire for Sweden to take the first step and pave the way forward, just as it has done before. However, Sweden is no longer at the forefront of experiments in social policy, argues Roland Paulsen. Eight-hour work days still apply and have done so for almost a century. Today, experiments are conducted in other places, such as Finland, the Netherlands and Canada, where they are testing the system of citizen’s income.

“But there is a force in the Swedish model and Sweden can bounce back and become a pioneer once more, for example by introducing a six-hour work day, and instead of ‘simple’ pretend jobs create real jobs in the public sector, particularly in healthcare”, says Roland Paulsen.


The Lund researchers argue that Sweden has challenges to overcome, but most are cautiously optimistic about the future, as there are many positive things to highlight when painting a picture of Sweden.

The work to promote gender equality has been successful, emphasises Diana Mulinari.

“A lot has happened in 40 years and today both women and migrants are part of the public discourse. People would have a hard time placing women back behind the stove.”

She also sees a new humanism emerge, not least in the volunteer work with refugees.

“The mobilisation that took place during major refugee influx in autumn 2015 was amazing. At Malmö Central Station, we saw old ladies with pearl necklaces and black-clad youths work side by side to welcome refugees. There is a strong daily solidarity which we are seldom able to read about.”

MALMÖ. 10 sep 2015 Volunteers give food and drinks to refugees at Malmö central station. Foto: Ola Torkelsson / TT /

MALMÖ. 10 sep 2015. Volunteers give food and drinks to refugees at Malmö central station. Photo: Ola Torkelsson / TT /

The debate is polarised, but widespread; the interest in politics has not been as extensive in many years, which is something Håkan Johansson sees as a hopeful sign. And Jan Teorell, Professor of Political Science, argues that pessimists are trying to take advantage of the developments around the world, such as Trump and Brexit:

“There is nothing to say that things will ever be the same in Sweden. Our government has close to the weakest support in the postwar period, but it still get things done; democracy continues. Wherever you stand on the issue, the refugee crisis of 2015 was handled, summarises Jan Teorell.

The globalisation backlash follows an historical pattern – periods of free trade and the increased migration are often followed by periods of protectionism and nationalism, says economic historian Kerstin Enflo.

“But it does not necessarily mean the end of globalisation. The key is to make sure the partisan interests are balanced and everyone is included, even those who don’t have as much to gain from globalisation as the young or the big city population.”

American researcher Peter Lindert has shown that the major threat to the welfare state is not immigration, but the growing elderly population, continues Enflo. The risk is that older people place their votes on parties that favour their interests, while the welfare state must be proactive to stand strong.

“It is particularly important to invest in education for children who come from homes without an academic tradition. Sweden has done well in this area in the past, but the latest PISA report shows a decline, and special investments are needed to turn things around”, says Kerstin Enflo.

Lars J. Nilsson, Professor of Environmental and Energy Systems, argues that the Swedish societal

Lars J Nilsson Photo:Kennet Ruona

Lars J Nilsson Photo:Kennet Ruona

model built on consensus and trust is still alive, and sees good opportunities for Sweden to become a pioneer in green technology.

“We have many progressive companies, and if we lead the way for lower greenhouse gas emissions and sustainable solutions, we can have a thriving development. Since 1990, we have reduced our emissions by approximately 25 per cent, and from what I can tell, no one has suffered from it.”

From an environmental perspective, Lars J. Nilsson sees a slow shift towards greater respect for the environment and the limitations of our planet when it comes to societal development, through the broad consensus on environmental and climate policy objectives, for instance.

“This is a Swedish model, where we try to achieve a positive development of welfare and society at large, but under the given environmental conditions. It is no longer about choosing between economic growth and improving the environment – they go hand in hand”, he says.

Johannes Lindvall Photo:

Johannes Lindvall Photo: Kennet Ruona

Many of the challenges mentioned by the Lund researchers require political solutions. But when the debate is more about “us and them” and “right and wrong” in absolute terms, it becomes more difficult for democracy to do its job, says Johannes Lindvall, Professor of Political Science.

“Parliamentary democracy is good at dealing with conflicts concerning the economic interest of different groups, but is less effective when we disagree on the ‘right path’ in an absolute moral sense. This does not mean that politics isn’t about morality – just not in such black-and-white terms that many would want it to be.”

But how will politicians in today’s polarised climate be able to compromise without getting into betrayal debates and risk losing voter support?

“I believe we have so many parties in Sweden now that it has become necessary to form inter-party agreements and alliances. The type of bloc party politics we have had for a decade or two no longer works – there is not enough to support making awkward political decisions”, says Johannes Lindvall.

Politicians also need to engage voters and bring hope for the future. Today, right-wing populists exploit the feeling of loneliness in a society that has made people into customers, by offering a sense of community – a vision of the idealised “old days”, says Diana Mulinari who has conducted research on women who vote for SD.

Roland Paulsen further argues that financial logic is not enough to understand how people feel and

Roland Paulsen. Photo: Apelöga

Roland Paulsen. Photo: Apelöga

why more are on sick leave due to psychological reasons. His research shows that in the understaffed healthcare industry, employees barely have time to go to the lavatory, while in other lines of work idleness is common, that is, doing “non-work” activities during work hours. Many do not feel that their tasks are meaningful.

He argues that considering the increases in productivity and technological development, we should be able to question the central role of the wage labour.

“Many jobs will disappear in the future, which politicians see as a threat and even want to raise the retirement age to secure our welfare. The welfare could be secured either way, if the profits were distributed more fairly”, he says.

Sweden is small and export-dependent, interwoven in the global economy and part of “the global aristocracy” with its privileges and lead. Does it even make sense to talk about Sweden as separate from the rest of the world, from refugee flows, climate change and geopolitical tensions, from Trump and Brexit? Not really, but the Lund researchers still convey an image of Sweden that is more positive than the one often portrayed in the debate.

You become more optimistic if you regard present-day events as a synthesis rather than a backlash – an adaptation to the globalisation that has served us well, argues Andreas Bergh.

“The things that are portrayed as negative often also have a positive aspect. While the loss of services in rural communities is not a good thing, it might benefit and provide new opportunity for those who move to the city. Some consider Sweden’s many single households a negative thing; however, it could also be a sign that women no longer have to stay in bad marriages, but rather are able to support themselves.”

Sweden is becoming a better place, but there are challenges, such as the shortage of assistant nurses and nurses, preschool teachers, mathematics and science teachers, police, etc., continues Bergh. Despite the shortage, these groups still receive low pay.

“Politicians are responsible for doing something about it – they are the ones who determine their salaries.”

 TEXT: Britta Collberg & Ulrika Oredsson

Sweden today

  • Productivity has doubled since the 1970s – the GDP is growing steadily.
  • Spending power and consumption is increasing.
  • Unemployment rates are the lowest they have been in a long time.
  • Sweden is at the top among the world’s most innovative economies.
  • Reduced corporate tax has benefited companies.
  • Sweden is number one on the Forbes list of the world’s most business-friendly countries.
  • Abolished tax on wealth, inheritance and gifts has made Sweden a tax haven for the wealthy.
  • Deregulation and downsizing in the public sector have resulted in private welfare solutions. Greater freedom to choose doctors and schools. But also greater inequality and segregation in schools, among other places.
  • Pupils with highly educated parents are much more likely to succeed. Swedish schools are worse compared to schools in other OECD countries on average, and not as successful as US school in compensating for the student’s socioeconomic background, according to the latest PISA report. The socially skewed recruitment to higher education remains.
  • Increasing sick leave. The increase is mainly accounted for by poor mental health, and predominantly by women.
  • Gang crime is a serious problem in urban areas. Over the past two years, the number of firearm-related murders has dramatically increased.
  • Schools, healthcare and police suffer from a lack of qualified staff.
  • Sweden’s refugee policy has been made drastically stricter. Border controls were introduced in 2015 after more than 160 000 refugees requested asylum. In 2016 there were 28 939 asylum-seekers in Sweden.

 Did you know that Sweden is

  • one of the most gender equal countries in the world
  • one of the countries in Europe with smallest gap in terms of income
  • the country in Europe where the income gap has grown the most since the 80’s
  • the country with the highest number of single-person households in the world
  • among the countries with the highest number of researchers per million inhabitants and the biggest investor in research and development in relation to its GDP
  • among the countries with the greatest transparency in its public authorities
  • among the countries with the least corruption
  • at the top when it comes to freedom of the press
  • among the best countries in which to be a mother
  • among the countries with the highest percentage of women in parliament
  • among the happiest countries, according to the World Happiness Report 2016
  • among the countries with the earliest sexual debut, at age 16–17
  • among the world’s least religious countries. Only Japan is less religious than Sweden, according to the World Values Survey
  • ranked six among the world’s most inclusive economies, with a high standard of living and social security (World Economic Forum 2017)
  • at the top in terms of the proportion of fixed broadband subscribers per thousand inhabitants
  • the country with the lowest number of hospital beds per capita in the EU; only Chile, Mexico, Colombia and India have fewer among all the OECD countries
  • the world’s healthiest country, according to the UN Sustainable Development Goals
  • the best green economy in global comparison, according to the Global Green Economy Index 2016
  • number one in terms of integration, according to the latest EU-funded survey Migrant Integration Policy Index
  • number one on the Good Country Index 2016