Sweden’s Suffocating Socialism: A Personal Story

I have been living in Sweden for quite a while now. As much as I disagree with the politics of this country, I am not particularly ungrateful. I moved on a whim, but I got my break in this country. Germany had chewed me out. In Sweden, I quickly got on my feet, despite the double disadvantage of being a foreigner and not being fluent in the local language. Overall, the country has been good to me. My personal summary is a positive one.

Yet, I have now come to the point where I feel great stagnation. You may know that the salary range in Sweden is quite compressed. I work in a quantitative field. I make maybe 30% more than a secretary and 30% less than a specialist doctor. Once you have gotten a job, you are locked in. Of course, you could get a different job, but it is not as if you could get a significant raise, so why bother changing? The housing market only makes this worse, i.e. moving between cities is discouraged as it is extremely difficult to find housing. I will discuss this in detail later.

Imagine you work for an organization with a flat hierarchy. At first you may find it thrilling that there are not multiple layers of middle management between you and your boss. This also implies that you will be given a lot of responsibility if you prove yourself. In my case, I was given a major project less than one year into my first job. That would certainly not have happened in Germany. The flip side is that it is difficult to advance. It’s likely that you won’t even benefit much if you made an extra effort at work. In some companies, the focus on work/life balance is so high that they would not even put you in a position where you could really show what you can handle.

I think if you want to have a relaxed, laid-back life, Sweden is a great place to be. For instance, there are 480 days of parental leave per child, to be shared between both parents. This is quite ludicrous, in my opinion. The laws are such that you have to get salary raises even if you are on parental leave. Some women exploit this by getting a job, getting two kids, and staying at home for about three years — and then they leverage that “job experience” for a better position at a different company, which, of course, is not allowed to inquire about children and any kind of absence from work. Obviously, your current employer would not readily promote them since they did not actually do any work for those years. Thus, motherhood can be a fast-track to promotion, if you are willing to change employers.

What bothers me most about Sweden is the housing market. A peculiarity of this country is that you have to queue for public housing; even many private landlords have a queue system. Alternatively, you can buy the “right to rent.” This is the Swedish version of a condominium, the main difference being that you pay a monthly fee that likely won’t be much lower than the rent in public housing. A big part of it goes to servicing the mortgage of the legal entity who owns the building. After all, you only bought the right to rent an apartment in it. The first time I heard about it, it sounded like a scam to me. The numbers are not at all favorable; you do it because it’s basically the only way to get some flexibility in the housing market as you can sidestep the public-housing queue. You put down the money, you get to pick where you want to live. For many years, Swedes took out mortgages with a duration of up to 100 years or even indefinite ones where they do not pay down the principal at all. It’s quite messed up. Private households are heavily indebted. In comparison, public finances in Sweden are in a pretty great shape.

Housing is in very short supply. It surely would not be so bad if you didn’t have around 25% foreigners and non-ethnic Swedes in the country. Yet, that is what the elites have to do to feel morally superior over the rest of the world, so that is what society has to shoulder. As a consequence, it is very difficult to find housing; as a further consequence, you also enjoy a wait of over two months to see a general practitioner, but that is another issue. You could take on crippling debt by buying “the right to rent”, which may take you decades to pay off, given the inflated prices and compressed salaries. There is the alternative to rent privately, which is where the “humanitarian superpower” would fleece you. The more generous souls charge a student who rents a room in an apartment more than the rent to the entire apartment amounts to. It really makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when you see the common Swede show such acts of kindness. In any case, you can expect to pay double or triple what you’d pay for a rent-controlled apartment, which makes it infeasible for anybody who is not on an expat package, which may include company-paid housing.

I got very lucky when, after six years of queuing, I got a rent-controlled apartment. It’s small, cheap, and in a pretty nice location. I could live in it until I die. The yearly rental increases are within a narrow range, so everything is predictable. That’s all great on paper. Yet, the problem is that I would much rather live in a bigger place, and one that is a lot more commensurate with my income. I could easily afford a bigger (rent-controlled) place, but they are difficult to come by because, you guessed it, you have to queue again. My only option is to wait. Well, my only realistic option is to wait. Getting a place in the outskirts is a possibility. I once even applied for such a place and got offered a viewing, which means that I was among the top few in terms of waiting time. Then I looked up the place online and the first hit was to a newspaper article about the recent rape and subsequent murder of a young Swedish woman by a cultural enricher from Africa. Needless to say, that dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.

Renting privately is not sustainable. You also get no security because those contracts are normally for only up to one year and, given how shockingly low housing supply is, you do not want to be looking for accommodation on short notice. Buying is ludicrous. Relative to income, housing in Sweden must be one of the most expensive in the world. Yeah, yeah, you can tell me all you want about Singapore, Hong Kong, or New York, but the fact of the matter is that in those places there are a lot of very well-paid jobs with which you can finance an apartment. Sweden does not really have that kind of salary level, though. You’re not supposed to get rich or even just financially comfortable in socialism. The idea is that people marry and both partners work, then you buy a place and pay off the mortgage, followed by divorce, and the ex-wife getting the house. I’m not joking. According to Swedish laws, the woman has first dibs on the shared house or apartment. By the way, Swedish mortgages are very long. You used to be able to get infinite ones where you only put up the downpayment and from then on only pay interest, with no intention of ever paying down the principal. The second-most popular ones had a duration of 100 years. With some recent changes in the laws, I think the maximum is now 50 years and if you want to pick the infinite option, you have to pay down, I think, 30% of the principal.

The upshot of all of this is that even though you get paid a fair wage if you have a decent education, you can end up like me and get forced to live well below your means. Living below your means is something I advocate, but not necessarily when it is due to external constraints as opposed to choice. There’s a good chance that the housing situation will cause me to eventually leave the country as the status quo is hardly sustainable. Besides, recently yet another ethnic family was moved into my building (do those people also have to queue for years?). They’re a lively bunch. I frequently hear them shout in the stairwell. At least they are not defecating under the stairs. One of them used to hang out in the stairwell and smoke weed, but the other tenants managed to shut this down. Now, what do you think will happen once there are more such people in the building? Clearly, there is heavy social engineering going on in Sweden, and it’s not going in a direction I like.

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2 thoughts on “Sweden’s Suffocating Socialism: A Personal Story

  1. What are your thoughts on moving to the US for a better pay/material reasons? Have you considered this? In Europe tech jobs pay fine, but not great, especially in comparison to the big companies in the US.

    1. I thought about it. I have had recruiters from large companies reach out to me, most recently Facebook, so it would not be unrealistic. Yet, I think that to get the most out of the US, you better be young, unattached, and childless. Just share an apartment with a few guys and sock away as much money as you can. If you can suffer through living in the Bay Area for half a decade or so, you’re nicely set up for your next step. The big tech hubs are hardly the right places for starting a family, so at one point you’ll probably have to leave (or you go your own way, but then the issue is that quality of life probably won’t be as good as in Europe.) The biggest issue right now would be that I would find few places attractive enough in the long run from a lifestyle perspective. Add children to your life, and suddenly the U.S. no longer look that great, given the cost of daycare and private schools, or housing to get into the catchment area of good public schools.

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