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Sweden Has One Of The Best Social Welfare Systems. Why Are So Many People Lonely?

Hygge dreams and happy extended families are increasingly fading away.

Image of people walking in the street.

Citizens in Sparbanken Arena, Lund, Sweden.

Alan Posener


Even if Sweden has one of the world's best social systems, more and more people say they are becoming lonely. Instead of idyllic extended families, more individualistic ways of living are becoming more common. This is having serious consequences, especially for those over 60.

If you believe in individualism, you should be in favor of a strong state. That sounds paradoxical, and it is. But while ideologies strive to erase contradictions, the real world is often contradictory.

Sweden, which is still the country with the world's most comprehensive welfare system, is also the country with the second-highest proportion of single-person households, just after Finland. Almost half of Swedes live alone.

In Germany, the term "Bullerbü" describes an idealized picture of Swedish countryside life — an idea that is popular precisely because it hardly exists anymore in Europe, and certainly not in Sweden. That's how it is with idylls. The German magazine "Landlust" is one of the country's most popular periodicals, even though only 15% of Germans live in villages — and they certainly don't read the magazine.

Image of \u200bseniors dancing in a retirement home.

Seniors dancing in a retirement home in Stockholm, Sweden.

Alexander Farnsworth/DPA via Zuma

Sharing and capitalism

In Sweden, the ubiquity of state child care allows parents to pursue their careers, even if they're raising a child alone.

But one consequence of this "statist individualism," as Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh calls it, is loneliness. Individualism is dandy if you're young, pretty, talented and ambitious. For the rest of us, it can be problematic. In Sweden, the over-60s in particular, 900,000 of whom live alone, often feel lonely.

Elsewhere, they are needed: taking grandchildren to daycare or school, picking them up and often caring for them in the afternoons. As birth rates fall around the world and people live longer, the ratio of grandparents to grandchildren is rising: in China, where the Communist Party followed a strict one-child policy until a few years ago, the ratio is 4:1 in cities.

In contrast, capitalism demands mobility and flexibility — that is, individualism.

The Economist magazine proclaimed this "the age of grandparents." Studies show that the elderly do better when they feel needed and can care for grandchildren. They also show that children do better when they see their grandparents regularly.

In contrast, capitalism demands mobility and flexibility — that is, individualism. An ideal employee is a single person who can be assigned to Singapore tomorrow. The ideal consumer lives alone and needs her own refrigerator, stove, car and furniture.

Sharing is anti-economic. The total freedom of the individual is in reality their total availability, and only the comprehensive welfare state makes this freedom and availability possible.

There's nothing wrong with day-care centers and homes for the elderly, or with self-realization. But a little Bullerbü is allowed: extended family and welfare state. Grandma and daycare. Hygge, because you want it, not because you have to. Those who want this freedom also need the state.

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The Language Of Femicide, When Euphemisms Are Not So Symbolic

In the wake of Giulia Cecchettin's death, our Naples-based Dottoré remembers one of her old patients, a victim of domestic abuse.

Photograph of a large mural of a woman painted in blue on a wall in Naples

A mural of a woman's face in Naples

Oriel Mizrahi/Unsplash
Mariateresa Fichele

As Italy continues to follow the case of 22-year-old Giulia Cecchettin, murdered by her ex-boyfriend Filippo Turetta, language has surfaced as an essential tool in the fight against gender violence. Recently, Turetta's father spoke to the press and used a common Italian saying to try and explain his son's actions: "Gli è saltato un embolo", translating directly as "he got a blood clot" — meaning "it was a sudden flash of anger, he was not himself."

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