When people talk about Sweden’s social welfare system, they often talk in terms of quantifiable statistics: the distribution of fathers and mothers on parental leave, infant mortality rates, and the number of entrepreneurs per capita, to name a few. It’s more difficult to trace the social welfare system’s effects on Swedish culture and families—effects that are just as important, but to which it is almost impossible to assign numbers and figures.
When I first came to Sweden, one of the most startling differences I saw between here and anywhere else I’ve lived—multiple regions in the United States, Italy, Austria—is the way that parents and children interact with each other as a family. It took me a while to understand why these differences exist, but I think they originate in large part with the far greater independence that young adults enjoy at an earlier age in Sweden than in most other parts of the world.
The biggest difference for me as a young adult and an American is that from what I’ve seen, the large majority of Swedish 20-somethings are completely financially independent from their parents. In the United States, young adults frequently have their finances interwoven with their parents’ to a much greater degree through, for example, student loans, health insurance plans, and family cell phone contracts.
It’s impossible to generalize about the behavior of parents and children in the United States versus in Sweden without stereotyping. It seems to me, however, that the safety net and the opportunities provided by the social welfare system makes a profound difference on how (in)dependent young adults are on their parents. Because young adults in Sweden have such a greater degree of economic freedom than in other parts of the world, a greater degree of self-agency at a younger age comes hand-in-hand.
Swedish parents seem just as willing as any others to help their kids out with money if they need to make a down payment on an apartment or buy a car, but barring large expenditures, young adults in Sweden don’t need their parents to underwrite the costs of their everyday lives. Because of this, the relationship seems to move beyond parenting into a more adult friendship mode at an earlier age than in other countries.
One giant difference is the cost of higher education. In the United States, parents often start saving for their child’s college tuition before the child is even born. In Sweden, it’s free to go to university, and full-time students get a monthly subsidy from the state to support them during their studies. They can also apply for a loan from the same governmental agency with lower interest rates than competing banks.
It’s also common for Swedes to take time off from studying for a couple of years after finishing gymnasium (something between high school and the first two years of college) and work or travel. This is the time when they’re expected to become adults, and once they’ve gotten a clearer idea of what they want to do, they’ll start studying at a university. Until their studies start, though, Swedes are relatively free to try things out, to travel, and to seek out life experiences rather than move quickly towards economic security.
The strength of the health care system in Sweden also allows young adults to have incredible economic freedom from an early age. Having access to high quality, efficient health care that also happens to be provided at a low cost to the patient gives everyone in Sweden the luxury of not worrying. For young adults in the United States, the difference is even greater. Before you get the fancy full-time job with benefits included, your health insurance comes from your parents’ job and their willingness to include you as a dependent.
All this security comes at a cost, of course, and that’s where Sweden’s high tax rates come into play. Sweden’s social welfare system is a safety net sustained by the strong economy and the tax-paying population, and you’ll see a hefty chunk of your paycheck allocated to the system before it makes its way into your pocket. The tradeoff is that your contribution lets parents off the hook for taking care of their adult children and puts it on the government instead. In the end, I’ve got to say—they don’t do a half bad job. And then parents can just enjoy being parents.