If you have spent time in one of Sweden's major cities, you might imagine an apartment with white walls, IKEA furniture and simple, tasteful simplicity, but there is only one person in the house. People in Sweden are more likely to live alone than any other country, with four out of every 10 families having only one person, but what does this tell us about Swedes? Maybe not the things some expect.
In 2017, 1.8 million people lived in Sweden alone, representing 39.2% of all households (17.8% of the population), a figure that has barely changed since 1990.
Sweden is a big and cold country, where people don't talk to each other a lot, and everyone tries to protect their personal space. Greta Garbo's “I want to be alone!” Cry in “The Grand Hotel” often summarizes Swedish love for isolation, but people tend to live alone in Sweden more than anywhere else.
Swedes attach great importance to independence, and living alone is part of it. “In most cases, a person is living alone temporarily and is not a choice of life,” says one local proverb, “a strong person alone”. "Gender, income groups, or ages." There are two basic stages when single living is particularly common: in adulthood (age 19-30), the stage of leaving the parents' home and moving to live with a partner, and retirement (over the age of 65), when married couples become widows.
There is also a gender divide, about 53% of individual households are women and 47% of men, with an excessive increase among single women in older age groups and among young males. This fits in with demographic trends that see men usually get married at a later age than women, while women live longer on average, and Anderson points out that this is not new in Sweden.
In older farming communities, young people move from the parents' home, but they usually go to work on another farm with other people, he says. “So statistics show that they are classified as residents rather than living alone, or maybe the age of marriage is younger. “But the idea of going out and gaining independence has always existed historically.”
"The basic patterns are very stable," he says, and the researcher has noted growing interest in his studies by researchers and media abroad, including in Asian countries such as South Korea. Unlike Sweden, he says, these countries are already undergoing population changes, with a higher proportion of people choosing to remain single or without children, while in Sweden this rate has remained almost unchanged over the past century.
One of the most comprehensive treatises on Swedish individuality was published in 2006 by Lars Taggart and showed Bergen under the provocative title "Is the Swede a Human?", In an attempt to explore the Swedish model on which the modern welfare state was built. The basic idea is that everyone should be able to break free from ties with other people, whether financially or otherwise, so that parents are not obliged, for example, to support adult children or elderly relatives, and women are able to pursue a career Independent without the need for marriage. The book brought waves of controversy, abroad. The thesis helped explain why leaving home is an important part of life in Sweden.
In fact, Taggart and Bergen claim that relations become more sincere when there is no interdependence. While some people in Sweden, as in other countries, choose to spend their lives alone, a larger part choose otherwise.
Elsewhere in Europe, the date when young people give up their parents' home is getting late. In Italy, the majority can expect to live with their parents until the age of 30, as one study showed last year, and in the UK, where the vast majority of university students leave home during their studies, often returning to the mother and father once they graduate, burdened with debt studying.
Sweden is experiencing the same trend, with a high housing market in big cities, forcing more young people to live with their families.However, it remains unusual for young people over the age of 25 to stay in the parents' home or move into a shared apartment with friends.
The welfare system also helps individual families, such as those who find themselves alone after divorce or the loss of a spouse. In other countries they may have no choice but to return to the parents' home or live with friends temporarily. Government policy therefore has an impact on family size and, together with welfare policy, housing policy plays a role.
If you are touring a Swedish city, you will notice that the accommodation itself is different from many other European cities. In London, there are houses that have been converted into multiple apartments, Paris has its own style, while Rome is characterized by its luxurious building. For this reason, a middle-income student or youth is likely to rent a room with colleagues in one of these countries, whereas they usually rent a small “studio” in Stockholm, simply because of the offers available.
Poor agricultural country
The difference between Europe is largely due to the fact that the Nordic countries underwent urbanization later than elsewhere in Europe. Industrialization began in Sweden about a century after the United Kingdom, and before that it was a very poor agricultural country. The transformation occurred relatively quickly in the second half of the 19th century, leading to a sharp growth in the population, rising from 3.5 to 5.1 million, which meant the need for more houses. The houses were built taking into account more modern needs, unlike large houses built for a different era in Paris or London, which have since been divided into apartments.
The Swedish Red Cross has launched a nationwide campaign to combat unity. According to the Swedish Statistics Authority, one in three Swedes over the age of 85 feels lonely. In the documentary The Swedish Love Theory, Swedish director Erik Jandini raised the question of whether Sweden's progress towards modern, independent values endangered human values.
But other data suggest that Swedes strike the right balance between independence and the social aspect. Many Swedes are active members of clubs or communities, and social media often revolves around inviting others to the house, even if it means overcrowding in a 30-square-meter studio, for drinks or dinner, rather than meeting in a cafe or bar. Something that can strengthen social bonds.
In a recent global survey, 68% of Swedes said they regarded friendship as a "very important" part of life, compared to only 54% in the United States and 51% in Germany. Eurostat figures show that 97% of Swedes have friends they can count on when they need help, above the EU average of 93%, while reporting the second highest level of satisfaction with their friendships.
"A single family doesn't mean a single lifestyle," says Gunnar Anderson, a professor of demography at the University of Stockholm. "These people are not necessarily alone in reality, and they still have friends, and so on!"
The sociologist cites more studies examining how people around the world contact non-resident family members “in Sweden, a much higher number than in many other countries. "We have more freedom, but people still maintain this connection." Other studies show how family members are helping older relatives, a trend that is very high in Sweden and is also optional.
For those not convinced of the benefits of living alone, it is worth remembering that it is not the only option. The stereotype may be that Swedes value their privacy, but cooperation and equality are also key Scandinavian terms, and not surprisingly, Sweden is a thriving home for coexistence.
In recent years, communal accommodation targeting entrepreneurs or young professionals has gained interest as a means of addressing housing shortages in Sweden's cities, but it is just a more recent replication of something that has existed for years. In the early 20th century, a group of "collective houses" was built, for single women, primarily, the idea is that by sharing homework, they will have more time for the profession, and later, similar characteristics were set for the elderly population.
Understanding the various factors behind the large numbers of individual families in Sweden shows that this phenomenon is more than an obsession with independence and privacy. Referring to Greta Garbo's cry “I want to be alone”, it should be noted that the actress complained about the way the phrase was used. She explained later: «It is confusing and life in Sweden is not necessarily isolationist».
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