Speaker and academic Jonas Himmelstrand uncovers the truth behind the myth of the utopian socialist Swedish society
At our Open Meeting in November 2011 (and again at our House of Commons Reception on 12th March 2013) Jonas Himmelstrand captivated us with an account of Swedish family life, which was in complete contrast with the perfect image many have of Sweden, whose family policy has ‘for the past decade or so become a point of reference for policy makers in other welfare democracies’. Jonas told us that, despite appearances, for the last thirty years, Sweden’s socialist dream has failed to deliver. What is interesting is that the problems faced are not material: the standard of living remains enviably high: life expectancy is long, child poverty is low, spending on education is generous and there is 16-month parental leave, so that no young babies are left in daycare. However, this utopia is built on a false ideology, which has led to major social problems, especially among young adults.
Jonas had first been alerted to the problem ten years ago by a head teacher, who was in despair over the poor psychological health of his students. Since 1989, Swedish children have been said to have the worst psychological health in Europe, something acknowledged by Swedish institutions. The response to all of this has been to introduce more school psychologists. Bad morale leads to bad discipline, including bad language. Some schools are on the verge of breaking up, with youngsters becoming impossible to teach. Girls, especially, are suffering. While anti-depressants have helped to bring suicides down among
adults, this is not so among the young.
Poor psychological outcomes for children are often blamed on poverty but the test case of Sweden shows that material prosperity is not the greatest need. So, if poverty was not the reason for this epidemic of mental ill-health, Jonas began to question what was going wrong.
Identifying the Cause
The answer seemed to lie with Sweden’s childcare policy. From the age of 18 months a massive 92% of children are in full-time daycare until they reach school age. This is heavily subsidized by the Government with state subsidies of £14 000 per child and initially the quality of this care was relatively good. However, thirty or so years down the line the system is now at breaking point, and now each carer is in charge of 18 1-year olds, a shockingly high number. Despite these facts Swedish politicians are still following the goals set down in the 1970s. These goals are to have TOTAL gender equality, with the same amount of women as men in work, and not only that, but full-time employment across the board is seen as the ultimate goal. The focus on gender equality stretches across the political spectrum and dominates the media. The Prime Minister had recently said that women should be “liberated from part-time work”.
In order to achieve this huge social pressure is exerted to get every child into the daycare throng. Home-schooling is effective illegal, and families can face fines of up to £10 000 and social services can be called in. Consequently there are only 75 home-schooled children in Sweden, compared with 100 000 in the UK (a proportionate figure would have been 15 000).
This reflects the chilling fact that in Sweden the philosophy is that the State knows better than parents, and has ultimate responsibility for children. If you go with a toddler for a medical check-up, the health professional is trained to question why that child is not yet in daycare ‘where they belong’.
The effect of this policy is that young couples have practically no active family life. Swedish parents are losing their self-confidence in their parenting skills and their sense of responsibilities for their children. Even when they are at home on leave with a new baby, they will leave a toddler in daycare. But of course, schools and pre-schools cannot provide the love that parents are no longer giving. The word ‘housewife’ in Sweden is an outlawed word. Despite the fact that those few who admit to being housewives are in practice active in many fields and have little in common with the 1950s caricature to which they are likened.
People are often further surprised to discover that, in Sweden, although most women go out to work, the labour market remains highly segregated between the sexes, with women taking only 10% of management positions. The difference in opportunities for men and women can be compared with that in Muslim countries. Many women are in fact employed looking after other people’s children, in daycare and in education. At the same time, women have very high rates of sick leave, with daycare staff one of the top three susceptible groups. This is not surprising when you look at the huge expansion in provision that daycare is expected to cope with and it is even publicly admitted that staff have an impossible job. Women are generally burning out and frequently retire by the age of 50 or so. Jonas pointed out that,
were mothers given a break to look after their children, many would go on working for a good ten years longer. All of this is in contrast with Finland, where daycare only begins at 3 years old, there are home care allowances, fertility is higher and top schools produce excellent results. Sweden does have a reasonably high fertility rate for Europe, but lacks the quality of upbringing.
The Effect on Babies and Young Children
There is an increasing amount of early years’ research that shows that lack of attachment in infants and young children, especially in the under-threes, leads to low thresholds for stress throughout the rest of adult life. This is due to high levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol when young children are placed in an environment that is stressful for them.
When this is also coupled with high early exposure to large groups of other children, you get unhealthy peer-orientation. Without a strong hierarchical relationship with their parents, children focus their attachment on their peers. The result of this is that child maturation is held back and the development of speech and vocabulary suffer. It has been found that interest in learning weakens and without it culture flat-lines. In large peer groups bullying can quickly lead to gangs and you also get more promiscuity. Given all this, it is not difficult to see why the psychological health of teenagers is suffering.
So children are suffering and parents are suffering. Every society needs close emotional relationships; without them you get sickness, weariness and a lack of civic pride. A society cannot maintain itself in this way indefinitely. Good relationships are more important that diet, housing, cars and all the other symbols of material wellbeing.
The fact is that surveys show that the great majority of women want to spend more time with their children especially when they are small. Younger mothers are reacting most strongly and so are the children themselves, who repeatedly say that what they want most is more time with their parents.
Why has there been no change?
A principal reason is that people are in denial. The whole subject is too sensitive to debate in public. Also, child rearing skills have been lost, and with them the confidence that parents can bring up children on their own. What began as a political ideology has now sapped parents of their will to nurture..
Jonas ended his riveting talk with a warning. Swedish family policies need to be tested by careful multidisciplinary research before any other nation adopts them. At the same time much greater efforts should be made internationally to support and respect the institution of family and to make sure that it is safeguarded by society and by governments. After all, he said, it’s all we’ve got left.
You are strongly recommended to look at his slides, available at: