Is Sweden Perfection?

Inspired by the Spirit Level two students decide to visit Sweden to explore, through an adventurous trip, the reasons why Sweden is less unequal than England and what the other countries might learn from the ideal-type of the Nordic welfare. For these two guys “Sweden is perfection. Beauty, happiness, wealth, health… and equality”. Their account is somewhere between almost-participatory research and a public account of Sweden.

I have been myself always impressed by Scandinavians’ welfare and by its positive impact on inequality – and ultimately the reason why I have started to social policy has a lot to do with the time I spent in Finland. But beside the noble scope of the students’ trip, I am facing increasing problems in speaking about Sweden’s and other Scandinavian countries as ‘special cases’.

The problem…

As a comparativist I recognise the relatively important performances of these countries approaching to notions of universalistic welfare. But in practice I see emerging many counter-examples of this speciality.

Interestingly, the delay that characterises the spread of ideas in social research creates a temporal mismatch between ‘the world of research’ and the ‘external world’ that research tries to inform: ideas and findings from research need to be ‘chewed’ – even within epistemic communities – before spreading to the outside world and when they are finally spread things might already look quite different or about to change. The superiority of Scandinavian welfare state compared to others is probably rooted back to the works of Scandinavian experts of social policy and sociologists such as Korpi and Esping-Andersen. From the late 80s – early 90s there have been many contributions underlying how Scandinavian welfare is presenting lower levels of commodification, stratification, higher state intervention and interventions to reduce inequality rather than purely poverty-oriented (see the very relevant contribution by Korpi and Palme).

Yet recent developments challenge the popular (common-sense) idea that Scandinavian countries always perform better in inequality. I would like to illustrate very briefly two aspects that are extremely linked to the present and, above all, the future of Scandinavian welfare states and that challenge these ideas: youth policy and support to welfare.

Youth social exclusion

The first source of great doubts about Sweden as the dream-land of inequality is the level of youth social exclusion especially through employment participation. In January 2010 youth unemployment (under-18) in Sweden reached the record level of 26.6 and remains among the highest of Europe, in line with the rates of South-European countries (see Eurostat). In Hammer, in a study including a comparison of youth social exclusion in six countries, Sweden is portrayed as a country with quite a high level of youth social exclusion; the explanation of the authors is that that the Swedish labour-market policy, being based on a performance model (work qualifications determine access and the amount of support) penalises young people. They also add that “the rapid changes in society over the past few decades have widened the generation gap, with the material conditions of young persons having suffered in comparison with those of their parents and retired persons” (Hammer: 94).

As a consequence, young people in Sweden rely heavily on social assistance; this problem is normally absorbed with the inclusion of young people in the labour market, but given the huge level of youth unemployment affecting this generation one wonders how this will impact the generational balance of the Swedish welfare system. The level of income- related poverty among young adults in Nordic countries is generally considered quite high, among the greatest of Europe, as shown for 20-24 & 25-29 year olds in this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report(unfortunately Sweden is the big absent of this analysis) . 

Support to welfare

There are other sources of doubts on the present and future capacity of Sweden to guarantee low inequality – in particular, the enduring consequence of the reforms introduced the 90s in Sweden, after the economic crisis, which did not change the direction of the welfare regime, but surely had an impact on the balance between market and state (cf. Timonen). The change in the ‘spirit of the time’ in Scandinavia is particularly signalled by the political changes in welfare support expressed by the historical absence of the pro-welfare-state social-democratic party in the current government after the last elections – for Esping-Andersen Sweden was the ideal-type of the social-democratic regime! This goes together with the relevance of anti-migrants movements in current Swedish politics, concerned about the sustainability of welfare in current times.

This poses the issue of whether the politics of ‘consensus’, fundamental for the setting up of the most universalistic welfare state, is still high in Sweden. A very recent contribution by Taylor-Gooby explores this issue, and in particular the role of ‘solidarity’ as the underlying basis for welfare state intervention, by analysing the attitudes to welfare support through the European Social Survey. Compared to Germany and the UK, Sweden shows a particular high pro-welfare position in particular in the idea that “government should spend more”, while in the other indicators Sweden shows a slight higher support, in line with the responses of the UK and German participants. Taylor-Gooby also says:

“The responses show that across the three countries, there is a stronger endorsement of the questions that reflect ideas of individual responsibility and government provision of opportunities: the more active approach. However, there is a sharp gradient in responses to the more moralistic question about whether unemployed people are proactive in searching for work. In social democratic Sweden, this is a majority view, but is less accepted in corporatist Germany [...]” (2010: 10).

Sweden still appears more supportive of welfare than other countries in this analysis, although also concerned about individual responsibility.

The Sweden of 2011, not 1980

I conclude stating that Scandinavian countries have given an enormous contribution to the equality debate and to welfare state studies, both in terms of their academic contribution, their policy practice and the final outcomes that they have achieved in the last decades. For Doyal and Gough in 1991 Sweden was showing the highest level of satisfaction of human needs.

For the Nordic countries, “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” and there is a concern whether the level of universality and equality will stay as high as we are used to. But while there are many challenges are arising for European welfare states, according to the very passionate defence of Scandinavia by Palme, Sweden & co. can still contribute in showing to the rest of Europe how to face them.

The problem…

As a comparativist I recognise the relatively important performances of these countries approaching to notions of universalistic welfare. But in practice I see emerging many counter-examples of this speciality.

Interestingly, the delay that characterises the spread of ideas in social research creates a temporal mismatch between ‘the world of research’ and the ‘external world’ that research tries to inform: ideas and findings from research need to be ‘chewed’ – even within epistemic communities – before spreading to the outside world and when they are finally spread things might already look quite different or about to change. The superiority of Scandinavian welfare state compared to others is probably rooted back to the works of Scandinavian experts of social policy and sociologists such as Korpi and Esping-Andersen. From the late 80s – early 90s there have been many contributions underlying how Scandinavian welfare is presenting lower levels of commodification, stratification, higher state intervention and interventions to reduce inequality rather than purely poverty-oriented (see the very relevant contribution by Korpi and Palme).

Yet recent developments challenge the popular (common-sense) idea that Scandinavian countries always perform better in inequality. I would like to illustrate very briefly two aspects that are extremely linked to the present and, above all, the future of Scandinavian welfare states and that challenge these ideas: youth policy and support to welfare.

Youth social exclusion

The first source of great doubts about Sweden as the dream-land of inequality is the level of youth social exclusion especially through employment participation. In January 2010 youth unemployment (under-18) in Sweden reached the record level of 26.6 and remains among the highest of Europe, in line with the rates of South-European countries (see Eurostat). In Hammer, in a study including a comparison of youth social exclusion in six countries, Sweden is portrayed as a country with quite a high level of youth social exclusion; the explanation of the authors is that that the Swedish labour-market policy, being based on a performance model (work qualifications determine access and the amount of support) penalises young people. They also add that “the rapid changes in society over the past few decades have widened the generation gap, with the material conditions of young persons having suffered in comparison with those of their parents and retired persons” (Hammer: 94).

As a consequence, young people in Sweden rely heavily on social assistance; this problem is normally absorbed with the inclusion of young people in the labour market, but given the huge level of youth unemployment affecting this generation one wonders how this will impact the generational balance of the Swedish welfare system. The level of income- related poverty among young adults in Nordic countries is generally considered quite high, among the greatest of Europe, as shown for 20-24 & 25-29 year olds in this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report(unfortunately Sweden is the big absent of this analysis) . 

Support to welfare

There are other sources of doubts on the present and future capacity of Sweden to guarantee low inequality – in particular, the enduring consequence of the reforms introduced the 90s in Sweden, after the economic crisis, which did not change the direction of the welfare regime, but surely had an impact on the balance between market and state (cf. Timonen). The change in the ‘spirit of the time’ in Scandinavia is particularly signalled by the political changes in welfare support expressed by the historical absence of the pro-welfare-state social-democratic party in the current government after the last elections – for Esping-Andersen Sweden was the ideal-type of the social-democratic regime! This goes together with the relevance of anti-migrants movements in current Swedish politics, concerned about the sustainability of welfare in current times.

This poses the issue of whether the politics of ‘consensus’, fundamental for the setting up of the most universalistic welfare state, is still high in Sweden. A very recent contribution by Taylor-Gooby explores this issue, and in particular the role of ‘solidarity’ as the underlying basis for welfare state intervention, by analysing the attitudes to welfare support through the European Social Survey. Compared to Germany and the UK, Sweden shows a particular high pro-welfare position in particular in the idea that “government should spend more”, while in the other indicators Sweden shows a slight higher support, in line with the responses of the UK and German participants. Taylor-Gooby also says:

“The responses show that across the three countries, there is a stronger endorsement of the questions that reflect ideas of individual responsibility and government provision of opportunities: the more active approach. However, there is a sharp gradient in responses to the more moralistic question about whether unemployed people are proactive in searching for work. In social democratic Sweden, this is a majority view, but is less accepted in corporatist Germany [...]” (2010: 10).

Sweden still appears more supportive of welfare than other countries in this analysis, although also concerned about individual responsibility.

The Sweden of 2011, not 1980

I conclude stating that Scandinavian countries have given an enormous contribution to the equality debate and to welfare state studies, both in terms of their academic contribution, their policy practice and the final outcomes that they have achieved in the last decades. For Doyal and Gough in 1991 Sweden was showing the highest level of satisfaction of human needs.

For the Nordic countries, “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change,” and there is a concern whether the level of universality and equality will stay as high as we are used to. But while there are many challenges are arising for European welfare states, according to the very passionate defence of Scandinavia by Palme, Sweden & co. can still contribute in showing to the rest of Europe how to face them.

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About Lorenza Antonucci

Lecturer in Social Policy, UWS
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7 Responses to Is Sweden Perfection?

  1. “youth unemployment (under-18) in Sweden reached the record level of 26.6 and remains among the highest of Europe”

    Er, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t those kids be in school until they’re 18?

  2. Lorenza Antonucci says:

    There is a mistake in the post that I was supposed to review – too bad! Youth unemployment is not unemployment for under-18 (indeed that would be not bad) but unemployment for the cohort 18-25

  3. Lorenza Antonucci says:

    So yes I should have been under-25, not under-18 and I will ask to correct this mistake asap

    • Evchen says:

      Maybe you could get some new numers showing sweden 2010 and how it is now 2011 – looking at Eurostat, the youth unemployment rate has gone from 27,4 % to 22,6 % (comparing jan 2010 to jan 2011), which I think is a great improvement. Comparing with Spain e.g that has gone from 39,7 to 43,1 %. Looking at other countries, Sweden is not the worst at all, plus there’s a positive trend. Germany is naturally in the top. I would say Sweden is doing quite well now, also considering how well Sweden survived the financial crisis. There are other countries (far more socialistic ones too) that are far worse.

  4. Pingback: Health Nexus Today / Nexus Santé aujourd'hui » Blog Archive » Quick Headlines from Robyn and Meghan – March 7, 2011

  5. ciriza says:

    Correct that error on the statistics which is totally misleading and on the web…

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