Monday 10 June 2013

Parents' paradise comes at a price

Almost all Swedish women work - and raise a family on lavish benefits. Their parental paradise has a subtle dark side, however. Lee Siew Hua reports from Stockholm
The Sunday Times, 9 Jun 2013

In Sweden, housewives are rare. Almost all mothers go to work, doing their bit to power an economy that has given the world Volvo, Ikea and H&M.

Here, the egalitarian anthem that women should share influence with men is an ethos so pervasive that gender equality is conveyed even in pre-school.

Bosses are enlightened, and many are willing to top up the lavish benefits for parents promised by the state and municipalities.

In this slice of parental paradise, women pursue careers and housewives are elusive, confined to enclaves of the super-rich. Among immigrants, who make up 15 per cent of Sweden's 9.5 million people, and who may not have fully imbibed Swedish work norms, housewives are more common.

But in the mainstream, housewives are almost an aberration. This is one hint that there have to be less rosy facets of the Swedish idyll.

"We have a culture that frowns on stay-at-home mums. People think you lack ambition or are stupid," says Ms Karin Svanborg-Sjövall, 32, project manager of welfare policy at Timbro, a free-market think-tank in Stockholm.

"We have rationalised away housewives."

To sustain a pricey, elaborate welfare system, Sweden has been wired on the two-income family since the 1970s, she notes.

Today, 81 per cent of mothers work. The job rate for mothers of children under three is 72 per cent.

For working dads, the overall job rate is 92 per cent.

The wonder is that in a land where almost all mothers work, the total fertility rate (TFR) is an enviable 1.98.

Singapore, in stark contrast, is struggling to boost its TFR of 1.2. This is woefully below the 2.1 replacement rate.

Behind the glowing Swedish statistics are intricate family policies - and attitudes - that took shape over 40 years. Step by step, consensus-loving Swedes have decided to coddle young working parents, push gender equality and embrace a child-centric lifestyle.

Mainly, parents can count on 480 days of paid leave for each child. From age one, a child can be enrolled in a first-rate, subsidised childcare centre that combines pre-school.

Ultimately, more than freebies, the Nordic attitude that it is possible to entwine family and career allows their enormous welfare system, a nanny state, to function.

Ms Ulrika Hagström, a researcher at the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees (TCO), a trade union umbrella body, underscores the sympathy of unionists for Swedes who take long bouts of parental leave, or hop onto the part-time work track when children are small.

"Working life is a flexible biography, alternating periods of intense and less intense activity," she points out.

Swedish fathers themselves are walking metaphors of gender equality. All over Stockholm, fathers can be spied pushing strollers or lunching with a little one, often solo, possibly because they are being stay-at-home dads for a spell. On a recent visit, an impressed British Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted: "Passing two Swedish fathers with pushchairs. Scandinavian scene."

Out of 480 days of parental leave, 60 days cannot be transferred between spouses.

This implies that fathers have at least 60 days that are exclusive paternity days - although the government has created a new reform to prod men and women to share leave more equitably.

Only 24.7 per cent of the leave is taken by men, which suggests that parenting responsibilities are not perfectly equal and women stay out of the labour market longer.

A fathering group, Men for Gender Equality, is lobbying for the 480 days to be shared equally by both parents.

Mr Mats Berggren, a gender equality worker at the non-profit group, says: "Some men say, 'I am not sure if I can take leave.' We talk about the value of the father's relationship with his child from Day One." He cites studies that show that men involved with children are less violent.

Indeed, studies proliferate in Sweden, with sociologists, unionists and officials flashing figures that amplify the story of family policy to international visitors like The Sunday Times.

For instance, Dr Samuel Engblom, chief legal adviser of TCO, the trade union, says research shows that when men take more leave, they are likelier to have a third child. The father enjoys better health, and faces less risk of divorce.

If life seems sweet, the Swedes themselves will not deny that a dark or different side exists, especially for women, seniors, young adults and immigrants.

Sociologist Marie Evertsson from the Swedish Institute for Social Research says career progression is crimped if mums stay home.

"Women who take 16 months or more of leave have a lower transition rate to jobs of higher prestige, compared to those who take shorter leave," she says.

"Even in family-friendly Sweden, it's important not to stay away too long from the job."

Swedish women still earn 15 per cent less than men, even though they are generally more educated than males. And one-third of women work part-time, compared to one in 10 men, according to Statistics Sweden.

Private finance expert Annika Creutzer concludes that Swedish life is most ideal for a small demographic. "It's quite easy to be a family with small children. Parents can be home a long time compared to other countries. But the pressure comes later."

In particular, Sweden has cut funding for elder care, though overall it spends five times more than the European Union average on this burgeoning sector in terms of gross domestic product. One consequence of cuts is that seniors often turn to daughters.

She thinks that is a "very dangerous road" for the daughters, who will be financially stressed if they labour part-time much of their life, first for the sake of children, then their parents.

"We have to fight the old expectations of what men and women should do."

About 18 per cent of Swedes have passed the retirement age of 65. This is projected to rise to 23 per cent by 2030, and their numbers will test the welfare system.

Other difficult social issues in Sweden are high youth unemployment and the integration of immigrants. Last month, small bands of young male immigrants torched cars in parts of Stockholm.

Ms Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin who has lived in Husby, epicentre of the violence, wrote in a commentary for The Local, a Swedish paper: "Those who immigrate to Sweden often come with strong norms relating to work and individual responsibility.

"Unfortunately, the Swedish system that makes it easy to get trapped in welfare dependency and difficult to enter the labour market hampers the integration process."

Tellingly, the rarity of the traditional housewife is the flip side of gender equality.

Half of young Swedish mums aged 18 to 29 would like to be housewives, according to a 2011 survey by a family lifestyle website, Familjeliv.

Analysts think this yearning stems from the glamorisation of housewives on television, and the poor job market for young workers.

Ms Svanborg-Sjövall, from the Timbro think-tank, says although she would hate to be a housewife, women should have the choice to stay home. "It's important to respect that people want to do different things," she says.

There is a "frail political opposition" to Swedish childcare and family policies, led by a small society of women, she says.

Beyond that, the housewife is still elusive, with Sweden and its Nordic cousins proud of their world leadership in gender equality.


Sweden is meticulously and liberally geared towards supporting the two-earner family model, which rests on three pillars:
- Parents have 480 days of paid leave for each child, to be taken before the little one turns eight. Thirteen months are compensated by the state at 80 per cent of a parent's income. It is not uncommon for bosses to supplement this "parental insurance" to a higher rate of 90 per cent to 100 per cent.
- From a baby's first birthday, excellent, affordable childcare is guaranteed. This is a double-purpose Educare model, which combines daycare and learning.

Fees are up to 3 per cent of parental income, but not more than 1,250 kronor (S$237) a month.
- Couples are taxed individually, which removes tax incentives for mothers to stay at home.

The largesse is fuelled by the high taxes that Swedes have accepted as a society. Marginal tax rate, paid by top earners, is 57 per cent.

But total taxes are higher. Two-children households earning 55,000 kronor per month contribute 38,000 kronor in taxes, according to Swedbank, a Nordic-Baltic banking group.

So the average Swede may end up paying 70 per cent of his income in taxes. This includes income taxes, value-added taxes and payroll taxes.

Good life, but family set for sacrifices
By Lee Siew Hua, The Sunday Times, 9 Jun 2013

Swedish photographer Jonas Ekstromer, 52, loves being a stay-at-home dad and he is taking five months of parental leave for each of his three children.

It is an extended absence from work. But he has the warm approval of his boss and indeed all of child-centric Sweden.

"You have a fantastic connection with the children," says Mr Ekstromer, who also cooks on weekends and shares chores with his wife Neva, 39, a nurse.

They share 480 days of paid parental leave for each child, with Mrs Ekstromer scheduling a year-plus each for daughters Tintin, five, and Elvina, three, and son Melcher, eight months old.

She still works part time, at an 80 per cent level, to stretch the parental leave. When her children are older, she will return to full-time work.

"My salary has not gone up as much as my colleagues with no kids. I think it's natural, it's fair," she says. She receives yearly pay adjustments, however.

She has no siblings, and never imagined she would raise three children. Without a nurturing state and a responsible husband, she says, she could not possibly manage three or even two children.

"I could never live with a man who doesn't cook or help at home," she says. "He would not be attractive to me."

Life is good in their southern Stockholm suburb, with three swings in the garden, but she is prepared for sacrifices.

They do not dream of a bigger house. "If we can't afford it, we think we can sell the house and move to a cheaper apartment."

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