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‘Only half the story’: The flipside of Sweden’s egalitarian utopia

When freelance writer Anne Grietje Franssen moved to Sweden and Gothenburg, she had to adapt her utopian image of the country.

'Only half the story': The flipside of Sweden's egalitarian utopia
A picture of central Gothenburg. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/

I would move to Sweden and life would be good. There was no other outcome: the Swedish idyll had been promised to me by the children books' author Astrid Lindgren.

In Sweden, I knew from an early age, a girl – in Lindgren's case, a Ronja – could decide to escape, on horseback, the dubious morals of her father and go live by herself in the forest. Sooner or later a red-haired boy would come by and together they'd make house in a cave, bathe in the river and live off the land. Or you'd become a free-spirited Pippi Longstocking in some colourful vilIa.

In any case: in Sweden, children were taken as seriously as adults and women were at least as independent as men. Ethnicity, status, gender or age were not decisive; only principles were.

When my Astrid Lindgren years were behind me and my image of Sweden was fed by references in (Dutch) media and politics, my youthful intuition appeared to be correct. Sweden really was the promised country, where refugees were welcomed warmly, where boys wore dresses and girls were encouraged to be wild, where higher education was free, waste recycled and the energy green.

The originally American 'alt-right' movement had made a half-baked attempt to undermine the idea of this Swedish paradise in the aftermath of the most recent refugee crisis, in the 2010s. Sweden had supposedly turned into a 'no-go zone', where, basically overnight, everybody venturing out into the streets was at risk of falling victim to one or another heinous crime.

It was an allegation that mostly provoked scorn outside these alt-right circles. Sweden, a no-go zone? Everyone knew that Sweden was the epitome of righteousness. According to the Reputation institute's index, Sweden ranks number one. “Just look at Sweden”, is the go-to answer among Dutch, left-wing politicians, to questions on how to improve education, the environment, migration, equality – or anything else, really. Sweden is the righteous father who wants the best for all his children. Folkhemmet, it's called: the state as the home of the people. Everybody under its roof is taken care of.

It turned out not to be a complete lie.

Astrid Lindgren in a theme park dedicated to her novels, in 1999. Photo: TT

When the Dutch newspaper Trouw is looking for a Scandinavia correspondent in 2016, I have little hesitation. At the end of that year I move to Gothenburg – located centrally within Scandinavia – and find a room in a collective in Bergsjön, an area in the northeastern part of the city. It's the terminus of tram line 11.

At first there's surprise. On that tram ride from Gothenburg's city centre to my new neighbourhood I am reminded of my previous life in Queens, one of New York City's five boroughs, where I lived a few years earlier and from where I commuted daily to Manhattan on subway line 7.

I would always get into a carriage full of people of colour, and would exit at Grand Central's underground maze in a stream of white men. That process would be reversed at the end of the day, when I saw, with each metro stop, the crowd of white turn into a crowd of non-white.

Surprise turns into slight disappointment upon arrival in Bergsjön. The area, named after its 'mountain lake', turns out to be one of Sweden's miljonprogram, 'million programme' neighbourhoods. Half a century ago, this program was the social-democratic response to a housing crisis. After World War Two, Sweden's population had grown steadily: there was the baby boom, the influx of migrant workers and refugees. The government decided to construct a million apartments within a decade, in order to fit everybody into the folkhem.

I get off the tram and see a long avenue with monotonous, high-rise apartment buildings that seem in need of a makeover. But I still look through my rose-coloured glasses, and reason: oh, so this is what equality looks like. 

Bergsjön. Photo: Adam Ihse/TT

After this naively optimistic start, my Lindgren vision can only become blurred. There's too great a contrast with my Swedish friends who live in the mostly blonde city centre, the streets lined with stylish, wooden houses, cafes, vintage shops and yoga studios. They ask me jokingly – ha ha – if I'm wearing my bulletproof vest when I'm heading back home. But I refuse to bash 'my' Bergsjön. It's so green, so diverse!

But that's the problem. It's not diverse at all. Gothenburg is one of the most segregated cities in Europe. And there are few people who actively choose to live in a suburb like Bergsjön. You often end up there by lack of choice.

This is partly due to the layout of the housing market, urban geographer and segregation researcher Roger Andersson says. In a city like Gothenburg, around 80 percent of all housing is owner-occupied, the other 20 percent is rental. These rental properties aren't evenly spread across town, but are concentrated in clusters, usually in the city's outer margins.

And whereas it's fairly easy to buy an apartment in Sweden if you have a full-time job, a modest savings account, or a family that can assist financially, buying an apartment proves complicated if you have unstable work, live on benefits, or have no well-off family members who can help out. Then, chances are that you end up in one of those 'million programme' clusters like Bergsjön, whether you want to or not.

Besides ranking high on the reputation index, Sweden is also somewhere at the top of the list of OECD countries with the fastest growing inequality. Income inequality has quadrupled over the past 20 years, in contrast to the egalitarian view many people have of Sweden. For about 80 of the last 100 years, Sweden has been ruled by a centre-left, social-democratic government, which provided the country with its current reputation. The political rhetoric largely remains one of a cuddly and social Sweden – which, at times, proves to be far from the reality.

Sweden took a neoliberal turn in the 1980s, when the government decided to start experimenting with free market policies that had recently gained traction elsewhere. This development accelerated in the 1990s, when the country experienced a severe economic crisis.

“The series of political decisions that were made then,” Andersson says, “led to the inequality we see in Sweden today”.

The government decided to deregulate hitherto public services: the railways, the electricity grid, the postal service. Even the acclaimed school system was opened up to private players.

Another consequence of this neoliberal thinking was the privatisation of the housing market. Particularly recent migrants, who struggled to find work or lost their jobs, were driven to the million programme tracts. “Which then got the stigma of poverty,” says Andersson. These suburbs became less and less attractive for the better-off to move to, and Swedish cities became increasingly segregated.

The process of segregation has put pressure on the available services in these areas, like schooling and healthcare, as inhabitants of poorer neighborhoods are generally lower educated and in worse health than the population in richer areas. So even if on paper everyone is entitled to the same, in practice the people who live here don't have access to the same resources as those in wealthier neighborhoods. Existing problems are often passed on from generation to generation.

A less measurable consequence of segregation is disillusion.

“People who live in these neighbourhoods can get the sense that they're ignored, that they don't get a chance,” Andersson says. Which, at its worst, can lead mainly the young into criminality, thinking: “I have nothing to lose anyway”, or “I have no access to any other means of income”.

Brännö brygga. Photo: Roger Lundsten/TT

After a while, I became one of those people with a choice, and I chose to move away. Carrying a couple of suitcases I got on the 11 towards the other end of the line: Saltholmen. According to statistics, my life expectancy had increased by about nine years once I arrived at the opposite terminus.

I took a white-blue ferry to another existence. My new home is the car-free island of Brännö, where I moved into someone else's charming summerhouse. In the mornings I jump from the cliffs into the sea and in the evenings I discuss the latest island news with other island residents in the public sauna. We pick wild berries all through the end of summer and dance to live music on the Brännö brygga, the archipelago's famous pier.

This is it; this is the life I had moved to Sweden for. And yet my envisioned Astrid Lindgren utopia no longer exists. Because I now know this Swedish life I get to live is only half of the story.

Member comments

  1. The woman expected a socialista country and she found a social democratic country. If she want that The people be equal, no matter how much study or work, please, move to Cuba and be happy.

  2. Interesting that the neoliberal policy changed for the worst and yet, we don’t really know the reason why such nasty experiences had to be tried. Was socialism having a hard time delivering the dream?

  3. Love this article. It’s what I noticed after 6 months here. Sweden should win a marketing award. The rest if the world is fooled by its reputation.

  4. These comments say more about the people who posted them than they do about the article.

  5. Very well written and correct. The other problem Sweden has is xenophobia. It is a beautiful country but it definitely has its problems and it’s inequalities.

  6. Oh, please!Those horrible Swedes built apartment blocks for unqualified migrants and refugees, where clearly they should have built 200 sq.m. villas in front of lakes. They ask for steady income in order to loan money! How preposterous! If there is growing inequality, it is only so because Sweden kindly and mercifully welcomes refugees and migrants with no qualifications whatsoever. You bleeding hearts and snowflakes need to wake up and smell the flowers. Sweden IS every bit the paradise you heard about. Take it from another migrant such as myself. There is just one tiny difference. YOU build your paradise. The country you live in just gives you the tools and provides the context and enablement to do so. In this aspect, Sweden IS #1.

  7. Fascinating! I left Sweden for the United States in the late sixties, but have returned numerous times to visit friends, relatives and to soak in the Swedish culture that I missed living in a country of racial divides, significant inequality and which, too often, celebrates self-interest over community. Over the years, while visiting Sweden, I’ve had this growing sense that Sweden and the United States were looking more and more alike. This article rings true and confirms my suspicions. It may be the inevitable consequence of globalization or American cultural hegemony, and I certainly have no right to be critical, but it does remind me of the adage “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

  8. A lot depends on where you are… in Sweden!

    I live in Denmark, but have many friends in different parts of Sweden. And in my experience, those different parts are DIFFERENT, both in the way they’re “organized” and in the attitudes of the people I meet there.

    Skåne is different from Stockholm is different from Dalarna is different Jämtland, etc. And Malmö is very different from rural Skåne. And if you want to restrict yourself to cities (I certainly don’t), I have experienced that they also differ significantly from each other.

    The article is interesting, and I won’t claim that anything it says is false, but as Anne’s last couple of paragraphs acknowledge, Göteborg is not all of Sweden. Why only those last paragraphs?

    She says, “And yet my envisioned Astrid Lindgren utopia no longer exists.”

    Anne, it never did. Certainly not throughout all of Sweden. But don’t worry, there aren’t really monsters under your bed, either.

  9. Oh well, figure this out, you go to someone else house, where you were not invited, and decide to live there. You use all the benefits that this house can offer. Then you realise that the food is not what you like, and the bed not so comfortable to that one that you left behind. My question is, why did you move into someone else house and then criticise how they live?
    If you don’t like what this marvellous country is giving you, don’t worry, you can always go back to where you came from, can’t you? Never criticise your guest, THAT IS VERY RUDE!

  10. Great article and very true. I used to live on Brännö with my Swedish husband and now Im divorced and live in north Kortedala. It’s just one tram stop before Bergsjön so Ive done her journey in reverse. There is a huge difference between the rich and the poor side of Gothenburg indeed, but I chose to stay here in Sweden. It’s still way better than going back to England. Plus, I would have to add that people are generally much friendlier and less judgemental here on the poor side

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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.