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Sweden Pays The Price Of Segregation

Even if the urban riots in Sweden last week took many by surprise, the signs were all around.

Second day of riots in the Stockholm suburb of Husby
Second day of riots in the Stockholm suburb of Husby
Olivier Truc

STOCKHOLMSuburbs ablaze with cars on fire and protesters hurling rocks at the police. After a week of violent riots, Sweden and the rest of the world are trying to understand what went wrong in this country, famed for its social model.

The Swedish suburbs were not burned to the ground. Sweden has been through worse, and truth be told, this spate of social unrest doesn’t come close to the riots France and the UK experienced in their suburbs.

Even if this country of 9 million inhabitants is doing rather well – with growth at 1.7% in the first trimester, and healthy public finances – and is still a very civic-minded society, it is in fact going through a rough patch.

“The problem is not a failure of the integration policy, it is that there is no integration policy to speak of -- just rhetoric,” says Irene Molina, professor of cultural geography at Uppsala University. “There is still a lot of structural discrimination in the Swedish society in regard to employment, housing, even going out to nightclubs, and it’s more or less accepted,” she adds.

According to Ove Sernhede, from the Center of Urban Studies: “The rise of inequalities in Sweden’s biggest cities is shocking; more than half the children who grow up there live beneath the poverty line.”

Two studies confirm this observation. The first study, from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that Sweden is the developed country where the gap between rich and poor expanded the most from 1995 to 2010.

The second study, from Swedish think-tank Migro, showed that Sweden was the worst country in the OECD in terms of unemployment rate among foreigners: 15.9% compared to 6.4% for native Swedes.

In the west Stockholm suburb of Husby, where the riots started on May 19, many families try to enroll their children in Stockholm’s best high schools. Because of the Swedish school system, schools in the suburbs are left with less students – and therefore less funding. Dropout rates are huge, and so is youth unemployment.

While we applaud the Swedish social model, we tend to forget that Sweden was one of the first European countries to deregulate its public services in the mid-1980s.

The deregulation of the financial sector led to the explosion of the housing bubble, which sparked a huge crisis in the 1990s. This led to an austerity policy – although it was never called that – and its effects can still be felt today.

After the right came to power in 2006, suburbs like Husby were set aside and forgotten. Local administrative services were moved to other neighborhoods, which further fuelled frustrations.

Ghetto trap

Many Swedes are victims of where they live. They are trapped in their suburbs, without much hope of being able to leave one day.

This was the case of Zlatan Ibrahimovic before he became an international soccer star. He was born in Rosengard, an impoverished suburb of Malmo, the third biggest city in Sweden. “Malmo was very close,” he wrote in his biography, “but it was another world. I was 17 when I first went to downtown Malmo and I couldn’t understand what was happening there.” Rosengard is a 30-minute walk from Malmo.

The Swedish model is fledgling, even though the country is doing all it can to appear modern, shiny and sleek with its pop music, food and conservative finance minister who wears a pony-tail and earrings and talks like a social-democrat.

Think-tank Migro says one idea to boost employment levels for immigrants would be to reduce wages for low-paying jobs so that immigrants wouldn’t compete with native Swedes for these jobs. This is similar to what conservative Prime Ministers Fredrik Reinfeld told Le Monde in 2009, when visiting an employment agency in the suburbs: “There should be different kinds of jobs. Some of those disappeared from our country. But we need them so that we can reduce youth unemployment.”

To one of the agency’s managers who was saying that Swedish lessons would help in that regard, the prime minister answered that for certain types of jobs, a command of the Swedish language was not necessary. Will the labor sector transform into a two-speed sector, with a cheap and low-level workforce at its base? Unions are gearing up for a fight.

Sweden has a cosmopolitan society – 20% of which is of foreign origin – and is tolerant for many things. But Sweden also has an extreme far-right movement that is thriving.

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What's Spoiling The Kids: The Big Tech v. Bad Parenting Debate

Without an extended family network, modern parents have sought to raise happy kids in a "hostile" world. It's a tall order, when youngsters absorb the fears (and devices) around them like a sponge.

Image of a kid wearing a blue striped sweater, using an ipad.

Children exposed to technology at a very young age are prominent today.

Julián de Zubiría Samper


BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

Such chilling figures are unprecedented in history. Many have suggested that this might be the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but sadly, we can see depression has deeper causes, and the pandemic merely illustrated its complexity.

I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

Firstly: Families today have fewer members, who communicate less among themselves.

Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

In Colombia, women have on average 1.9 children, compared to 7.6 in 1970. Worldwide, women aged 15 to 49 years have on average 2.4 children, or half the average figure for 1970. The changes are much more pronounced in cities and among middle and upper-income groups.

Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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