The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Failure of the Swedish Model of Family Policy

Allan C. Carlson

In an iconic article published a decade ago and entitled, “The Motherhood Experiment,” the New York Times Magazine celebrated Sweden for solving the population and family problems of modern European society. It explained: “Curiously, Europe’s lowest birthrates are seen in countries, mostly Catholic, where the old idea that the man is the breadwinner and the woman is the child-raiser holds strong. . . . Meanwhile, countries that support high numbers of working women, like [the Scandinavian countries], have among the highest birthrates.” The author called this “the fertility paradox.”[1]

These arguments actually have an almost religious hold on the social policy architects of the European Union. As Jean-Claude Chesnois summarizes, “in Sweden, . . . empowerment of women insures against a very low birth rate.”[2] With Sweden again in mind, sociologist Peter McDonald asserts that “[i]n a context of high gender equity in individual-oriented institutions, higher gender equity in family-oriented institutions will tend to raise fertility.”[3] J.M. Hoem links Sweden’s success to a “softening” of “the effects of women’s labor force participation on their life sufficiently to reduce the inherent role conflict [relative to motherhood] to a manageable level.”[4] Referring to Sweden, Paul Demeny concludes that “[f]ew social policies enjoy greater unqualified support from demographers and sociologists than those seeking” to make “participation of women in the labor force compatible with raising children.”[5]

Of course, the deeper source of anxiety driving these analysts has been the plummeting fertility of the European peoples, a continent-wide development. In the year 2014, the 28 nations of the European Union reported a combined fertility of 1.58 live births per woman, only 75% of the births needed to replace a generation.  Almost all of these nations have recorded declines in numbers over the past decades, with deaths outnumbering births.[6] Moreover, these declines are expected to continue. Eurostat, the statistics-gathering body of the European Commission, reports—using a set of assumptions concerning emigration, fertility, mortality, and net migration—“that the projected number of deaths in the EU-28 will be higher than the projected number of births for the whole of the period 2016 to 2080.” Furthermore, the percentage of the very elderly (over 80) will increase from 5.1% in 2014 to 12.3% in 2080, while the working-age population will continue to shrink. The median age of the population is expected to increase by 4.2 years in the same period. The report concludes, “ageing will continue across all of the EU Member States, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.” The Eurostat officials’ only hope is that “migration has the potential to help delay the ageing process in some of the EU Member States.” However, they acknowledge that “it may also speed up the process of ageing in those Member States which are characterized by a relatively high proportion of their working-age population leaving, for example in search of work.”

And not only is the population shrinking and aging. The institutions which historically have held up childbearing are failing. In Northern Europe, marriage is increasingly rare, replaced by cohabitation; in Southern Europe, young adults increasingly avoid both marriage and cohabitation, refusing to form childbearing unions of any sort. This is the essence of the joint European family and population crisis of the twenty-first century.[7]


More Gender Equality, More Babies?

And so, the Swedes have charged to Europe’s rescue, with claims of a unique solution to the joint family and population crisis, a solution which they say is applicable to all of Europe. In 2001, the Swedish Institute—what might fairly be called that government’s propaganda arm on social and cultural matters—published a paper entitled “Gender Equality—A Key to Our Future Economic Prosperity?” The author, Lena Sommestad, was director of the Swedish Institute for Future Studies. This short document perfectly outlined the Swedish family policy model offered as a solution for Europe’s demographic implosion.

Professor Sommestad’s essay claims that Europe’s challenge of declining birth rates, population aging, tumbling marriage rates, and rising out-of-wedlock births has two sources: female emancipation and “a crisis of the traditional European male breadwinner family.” She says that nations such as Germany, Italy, and Spain, which have tried to protect or shore up the male breadwinner and his homemaking wife, have failed to understand the irrelevance of these roles for the future, and have paid the price with extremely low fertility.[8]

Sweden, in contrast, has recognized women’s full emancipation and complete gender equality as “social facts,” and as the keys to a sustainable future. Professor Sommestad points to the theories of amateur sociologist Alva Myrdal from the 1930s; she had also argued that under modern conditions, the breadwinner-homemaker model, premised on a family wage for fathers, could no longer produce a sufficient number of children. Myrdal instead insisted that “declining fertility rates should be fought with increased gender equality.” This idea, Professor Sommestad admits, went dormant in Sweden during the 1940s and 1950s when, in a time of affluence and relative policy conservatism, male-breadwinner families became common in Sweden (indeed, another author calls this “the golden age of the Swedish housewife”). However, “[f]rom the 1960s and onwards, a growing number of Swedish women returned to gainful employment, and by the early 1970s, the two-breadwinner norm had been firmly established.”[9] Today, Sommestad continues:

Swedish gender equality policies build on a strong tradition of pro-natalist and supportive social policies. . . . No entitlements are targeted at women in their capacity as wives. The state uses separate taxation, generous public day-care provision for pre-school children, and extensive programmes of parental leave to encourage married women/mothers to remain at gainful employment.

Revealingly, Professor Sommestad argues that “[P]opulation aging, problematic as it is, may prove to be a window of opportunity for radical gender-equality reform.” Feminists, she says, “must overcome their traditional suspicion of demographic arguments and develop [instead] a new, progressive population discourse.” During the 1930s, Alva Myrdal proposed using the birth rate crisis as “a battering ram” for radical feminist social reform. Dr. Sommestad has done so again, although this time on a larger European canvas. She adds “that countries that do not stigmatize non-marital cohabitation or extra-marital births have a better chance of maintaining higher fertility levels.” Moreover, the Swedish model shows that to raise the birth rate, men must also take on “a greater responsibility” for child care.[10]

In sum, using admittedly less lofty language, the Swedish model of family policy sees radical equity feminism as the answer to the fertility crisis. If European peoples want to survive in the twenty-first century, she argues, they should eliminate the full-time mother and homemaker, crush the family wage idea, abolish the home as an economic institution, welcome out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation, push all women—especially actual or potential mothers—into the labor force, enforce strict gender equality in all areas of life, re-engineer men into childcare-givers, and embrace expensive state child allowances, parental leave, and public day-care programs. The results—almost by magic—will be more babies!


Making Family Policy at the EU

These are not just the ideas of academics, I hasten to add. In its 2004 official statement of policy toward the European Union, the Swedish government summarized its goal in one sentence: “We want to see a Union that is open, effective and gender equal.” Let me underscore this: the attainment of the feminist agenda was Sweden’s primary purpose within the EU. This government statement from April 2004 elaborates: “Sweden has a particular responsibility for increasing the pace of gender equality efforts in Europe. . . . Gender equality aspects should be integrated into all areas of policy.”[11]

Since then, Sweden’s push on these matters has only intensified. Most recently, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven demanded before other EU leaders that “workforce general equality” be prominently featured in the Declaration on the Future of Europe being prepared for the March 25, 2017, anniversary celebration of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the EU.[12] Even here in the United States, the Swedish Embassy in Washington, D.C., recently featured a large “Gender Equality Exhibition” entitled “We’ve Come a Long Way, Haven’t We?”[13]

Moreover, official documents pouring out of the European Commission emphasize ever greater attention to gender equality and harmonization of European family policy around the Swedish model, stressing “an individualization of rights” and a “new gender balance in working life” involving basic “changes in family structure.”[14] As political scientist Silke Roth summarizes, “EU equality law and discourse has [decisively] moved toward the Swedish model.”[15]

So what shall we make out of all this? To begin with, I do want to admit that there are aspects of the modern Swedish model of family policy that are attractive, at least to this social conservative. To begin with, the Swedish system does do a good job of bonding newborns to mothers and fathers—in the short run. The generous—albeit very expensive—“parents insurance” program provides new parents with 390 days of paid leave, at 90 percent of salary, and another 90 days at a lower allowance. This means that virtually all Swedish children enjoy full-time parental care during their first 13 months of life (compared to only a third of infants in the United States). This also allows new Swedish mothers to breastfeed their newborns for longer periods. And even some of the more coercive aspects of Sweden’s parents insurance program—such as the requirement that fathers take 45 days of the paid parental leave for the couple to receive the full benefit—have their human side: it turns out that Swedish fathers in the north of the country have a strong preference for taking their parental leave during Sweden’s moose-hunting season![16]

But that is about it: because the other claims by advocates for the Swedish model—particularly the claim that this approach will be Europe’s demographic salvation—quite simply vanish under scrutiny.


False Claim Number One

To begin with, the Swedish model of family policy has not solved the birth dearth in that land. Assertions that it has commonly rely on a peculiar development during the 1988-1993 period, which has since proved ephemeral. Consider these Total Fertility Rates for Sweden, by year:


1960-64: 2.30                               1991: 2.11

1965-69: 2.21                               1995: 1.74

1970-74: 1.89                               1999: 1.60

1975-79: 1.67                               2003: 1.54

1983: 1.61                                       2006: 1.66

1987: 1.88


As you can see, during the last decade of Sweden’s “breadwinner father/homemaking mother” era, 1960-69, the nation had a fertility rate well above the replacement level of 2.10. Contrary to assertions by Alva Myrdal and Lena Sommestad, the “family policy” system of that era clearly succeeded relative to population. However, once Sweden implemented the new model built on the deconstruction of marriage, out-of-wedlock births, working mothers, parents insurance, and day care, fertility fell by 30 percent to 1.61 by 1983. True, during the late 1980s, the number apparently started climbing again, reaching 2.11 in 1991, just above the replacement level. Progressive social analysts around the European continent shouted hosannas! Sweden had found the answer! But it did not last. By 1993, fertility was falling again, and by 2003, Sweden—at 1.54—was close to the European Union average for that time. Indeed, in the year 2000, Sweden joined that grim group of nations where deaths actually exceed births: more coffins than cradles.[17]

It turns out that Sweden’s so-called “success” in the early 1990s was a statistical fluke. A change in policy regarding eligibility for parents insurance, called a “speed premium,” had the one-time effect of reducing the spacing between first and second births. This threw off calculations of the Total Fertility Rate, but this change did not significantly increase the total number of children born per family.[18] Judged empirically, then, the Swedish model simply did not work; its so-called “success” in the 1990s was a Euro-urban-legend.


Coercive Social Engineers

Second, Professor Sommestad’s brief history of the introduction of Sweden’s new family policy during the 1960s grossly overlooks its radical and coercive nature. As honest Swedish feminist historians have admitted, there was no pressure for change from young Swedish housewives and mothers during the mid-1960s. By all accounts, they were largely happy with their situation. Instead, the pressure came from other directions. Government planners in the Labor Ministry foresaw labor shortages in Sweden’s future. Instead of opening the doors to greater immigration or encouraging larger families, though, they decided to pull Sweden’s young mothers into the workplace.[19]

At the same time, the radical wing of Sweden’s ruling Social Democratic Party took power, inaugurating what feminist historian Yvonne Hirdman calls Sweden’s “Red Years,” 1967-1976. At their heart was a massive “gender turn” that would radically alter the nature of marriage and family in Sweden. In 1968, the Social Democrats joined with the labor unions in a joint report concluding that “there are . . . strong reasons for making the two-breadwinner family the norm” in all welfare and social policies. The next year, Alva Myrdal chaired a major panel, “On Equality,” which concluded that “[i]n the society of the future, . . . the point of departure must be that every adult is responsible for his/her own support. Benefits previously inherited in married status should be eliminated.” The Report also called for an end to tax policies that favored marriage.[20] In 1969, a Ministry of Justice committee declared Swedish marriage law “clearly anachronistic,” based as it was on the now discredited Christian notion of “two becoming one flesh.” Instead, the law should focus on the new imperative of “personal fulfillment.” In 1971, Sweden’s Parliament abolished the income tax system favoring marriage, so giving this land the most “fully individualized taxation system” in the world. According to analyst Sven Steinmo, this single change “more or less eradicated” the traditional home in Sweden.[21] The Family Law Reform of 1973 introduced “no-fault” divorce, deeming it “only natural that if one of the spouses is dissatisfied, he or she may demand a divorce.” All social and welfare benefits tied to marriage were abolished.[22] By the time the Social Democrats were voted out of office in late 1976, their forced revolution in family life was complete; the Swedes had been re-engineered into a post-family order.


“Negative Momentum”

Moreover, Sweden—and Europe as a whole—now finds itself in new circumstances where the old calculations no longer apply. In the year 2000, a team of demographers reports in Science magazine, Europe’s population reached a vital turning point. Until then, although fertility was abnormally low, the overall age structure of the continent still had a “positive momentum”; that is, long-term stability could still be gained if women raised their average family size to slightly over two. In 2000, however, prior decades of low fertility produced a new situation. Europe’s population entered into “negative momentum,” which means that a fertility rate of 2.1 will no longer suffice to gain even stability. A rate approaching 4.0 would now be needed to achieve the same end.[23]

Further, it is becoming increasingly clear that forced “gender equality” can never be the solution to fertility decline, no matter how hard feminist analysts work to cook the numbers. For example, a team of analysts recently noted that the key components to the Swedish model—the reconfiguring of women’s education into equality with men, the movement of women into previously “all male” jobs, the deconstruction of marriage—are the very same policies which have generated dramatic declines in the fertility of women in the developing world. Contra Alva Myrdal and Professor Sommestad, you cannot turn a cause of fertility decline into its cure, no matter how much state money you throw at the problem.[24] Indeed, no less an authority than Joseph Chamie, Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, concluded in 2004:

While many governments, . . . non-governmental organizations, and individuals may strongly support gender equality at work and in the home as a fundamental principle and desirable goal, it is not at all evident how having men and women participate equally in employment, parenting and household responsibilities will raise low levels of fertility. On the contrary, the equal participation of men and women in the labor force, child rearing, and housework points precisely in the opposite direction, i.e., below replacement fertility.[25]

The Swedish model flies in the face of other well documented causes of the decline in fertility. Australian John C. Caldwell, one of the world’s most insightful demographers, has examined the dozens of rival theories behind what he calls “the fertility crisis in modern societies.” He explores the perils of a liberal economy which create doubts among women whether they should devote themselves to children. He dissects the special circumstances behind fertility decline found in Southern, Eastern, and Central Europe and in Asia. And he considers the effects of varied social policies on fertility, looking for common threads. He concludes “that a social order that does not reproduce itself will be replaced by another” and that the Swedish model works no better than any other social welfare model in countering depopulation. In the end, he admits that he can do no better than repeat the conclusion of Kingsley Davis from 1937, when the Western world faced a similar challenge: “the family is not indefinitely adaptable to modern society, and this explains the declining birth rate.”[26]

Under this explanation, the Swedish model stands doubly condemned. First, it represents an attempt to engineer a wholly new family system, which can only fail in face of the constants of human nature grounded in the natural family. And second, the Swedish model requires a forced march of all its citizens into modern urban-industrialized society: the very problem to be overcome.


Curse of the Two-Career Norm

Taking another broad look at Europe’s population crisis, Paul Demeny underscores how the two-income, or two-career, family norm eliminates all incentives to have larger families:

. . . despite flexible work hours, generous paid vacation, father’s temporary home leave to care for an infant or a sick child, or other similar benefits—the actual chosen number of children in two-working-parent families gravitates toward . . . families that are either childless or have only one or two children.

He adds that as low fertility continues, the elderly base of the electorate grows, making it highly unlikely that state welfare benefits could ever be rechanneled toward young families. Demeny concludes:

What can be taken as highly probable is the failure of the now prevailing orthodoxy governing European social policies. These policies will fail to increase fertility up to replacement levels and thus will fail to prevent the long term numerical decline of the European population.[27]

The very extent of Europe’s demographic implosion points to deeper causes. David Coleman has noted that remaining pockets of high fertility in Europe—such as the rural cantons of Switzerland—all disappeared around 1964, as did the pockets of higher “Catholic fertility” still to be found in Spain and Portugal.[28] Dirk Van de Kaa has reported that by 1985, 97% of 21-year-old Danish women reported having had premarital sex, essentially marking the full collapse there of the Christian sexual ethic.[29] Other researchers have shown that by 1985 only 20% of all European Community citizens above age 18 had a significant tie to organized religion: among young adults, the figure was closer to 10%.[30] Ronald Inglehart has cited the sharp decline in votes for identifiably religious political parties in Europe after 1963 as a sign of what he calls “the silent revolution” in European values.[31]

Importantly, Belgian demographer Ron Lesthaeghe underscores that “secularization”—defined as “the decrease of adherence to organized religion”—still serves as “the most powerful variable at the outset of fertility decline” and “the one with the longest lasting effect or the highest degree of persistence.”[32] He sees plunging European fertility during the late twentieth century as simply continuing the “long term shift in the Western ideational system” away from the values affirmed by Christian teaching (namely “responsibility, sacrifice, altruism, and sanctity of long-term commitments”) and toward a militant “secular individualism” focused on the desires of the self.[33] And as you might guess by now, Sweden leads Europe in measures of secularism and feminist-inspired individualism.


False Claim Number Two

More recently, advocates for the Swedish model point to an apparent climb in the nation’s TFR to about 1.9 by 2011, concluding again that their approach “works.” As before, the truth lies elsewhere. Indeed, this increase was primarily due to a massive influx of high-fertility refugees and other immigrants into the land, especially from the Middle East and Africa. As a careful recent study showed: “Over the years 2000-2011, female immigrants to Sweden [both European and non-European] had a Total Fertility Rate of 2.10, which was well above the TFR of 1.73 for the same period for women born in Sweden.”[34]

In fact, while Swedish “family benefits” actually fail to raise fertility among Swedes significantly above the EU average, these welfare measures do succeed in stimulating births among immigrants, particularly those from outside of Europe. As it turns out, foreign-born women accelerate their fertility after arriving in Sweden. This is especially true for women coming from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and similar poorly developed lands, who record a TFR approaching 4.0 after their arrival.[35] Once again, the Swedish “solution” to the fertility crisis proves to be no solution at all, but rather a formula for an accelerated national decline. In this case, native-born Swedes are subsidizing through tax-funded “family policy” their displacement by new peoples. As a sign of this, “active Muslims” may already outnumber “active Christians” in this land.

In sum, twenty-first-century Sweden embodies, even cherishes, the very social, economic, and cultural qualities that cause fertility decline. The “magic” of the Swedish model does not work. It is an illusion, a conjurer’s statistical trick, a dead end. Real solutions must be sought elsewhere.



Allan C. Carlson is Editor of The Natural Family


[1]     Sharon Lerner, “The Motherhood Experiment,” The New York Times Magazine (March 4, 2007): 20.

[2]     Jean-Claude Chesnois, “Fertility, Family, and Social Policy in Contemporary Europe,” Population and Development Review 22 (December 1996): 733.

[3]     Peter McDonald, “Gender Equity in Theories of Fertility Transition,” Population and Development Review 26 (September 2000): 438.

[4]     J.M. Hoem, “Social Policy and Recent Fertility Change in Sweden,” Population and Development Review 16 (1990): 735-48.

[5]     Paul Demeny, “Population Policy Dilemmas in Europe at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” Population and Development Review 29 (March 2003): 22.

[6]     Eurostat: Statistics Explained, “People in the EU—population projections,” data extracted in June 2015, page last modified November 27, 2015, available at

[7]     See: Paul Demeny, “Population Policy Dilemmas,” 1-3.

[8]     Lena Sommestad, “Gender Equality—A Key to Our Future Economic Prosperity?” Published by the Swedish Institute, September 1, 2001.

[9]     Ibid., 2.

[10]   Ibid., 2-3. 

[11]   Government Offices of Sweden, “EU Policy” (April 29, 2004).

[12]   Catharine Stupp, “Sweden Pushes Gender Equality onto Rome Agenda,”, March 13, 2017, available at; for a similar, earlier episode, see: “European Union: Sweden and Spain Push Gender Equality,” Oxford Analytical Daily Brief, October 26, 2009.

[13]   News release issued December 4, 2016,  available at

[14]   European Commission, “Modernizing and Improving Social Protection in the European Union: Communications from the Commission” (1997); and Herbert Krieger, “Family Life in Europe—Results of Recent Surveys on Quality of Life in Europe,” Family Paper #8.

[15]   Silke Roth, Gender Politics in the Expanding European Union: Mobilization, Inclusion, Exclusion (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013), 219.

[16]   See: Kristina Hultman, “Mothers, Fathers and Gender Equality in Sweden,” published by The Swedish Institute (March 6, 2004).

[17]   Demeny, “Population Policy Dilemmas,” 2.

[18]   See: Britta Hoem and Jan M. Hoem, “Sweden’s family policies and roller-coaster fertility,” Journal of Population Problems (Tokyo) 52 (1996): 1-22.

[19]   Dorothy McBride Stetson and Amy Maxur, eds., Comparative State Feminism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995): 241.

[20]   Alva Myrdal et al., Towards Equality: The Alva Myrdal Report to the Swedish Social Democratic Party (Stockholm: Prisma, 1972 [1969]): 17, 38, 64, 82-84.

[21]   Sven Steinmo, “Social Democracy vs. Socialism: Goal Adaptation in Social Democratic Sweden,” Politics & Society 16 (December 1988): 430.

[22]   Michael Bogdan and Eva Ryrstedt, “Marriage in Swedish Family Law and Swedish Conflicts of Law,” Family Law Quarterly 29 (Fall 1995): 678-9.

[23]   Wolfgang Lutz, Brian C. O’Neil, Sergei Sherbov, “Europe’s Population at a Turning Point,” Science 299 (March 28, 2003): 1,991-92.

[24]   Christos Bagavos and Claude Martin, Low Fertility, Families and Public Policies: Synthesis Report, Annual Seminar, Seville, Spain, September 15-16, 2000 (Vienna: Austrian Institute for Family Studies, 2001): 15.

[25]   See “‘Gender Equality’ Partly to Blame For Fertility Decline, Says UN Official,” Center for Family & Human Rights, July 24, 2004, available at

[26]   John C. Caldwell and Thomas Schindlmeyer, “Explanations of the Fertility Crisis in Modern Societies: A Search for Commonalities,” Population Studies 57 (2003): 241-63. 

[27]   Demeny, “Population Policy Dilemmas,” 22-25. 

[28]   David Coleman, Europe’s Population in the 1990s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990): 45-7.

[29]   Dirk J. Van de Kaa, Europe’s Second Demographic Transition (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 1987): 11.

[30]   Ron J. Lesthaeghe and Dominique Meekers, “Value Changes and the Dimensions of Familism in the European Community,” European Journal of Population 2 (1986): 2.

[31]   Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution: Changing Values and Political Styles Among Western Publics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977): 216.

[32]   Ron J. Lesthaeghe, The Decline of Belgian Fertility, 1800-1970 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977): 230.

[33]   Ron J. Lesthaeghe, “A Century of Demographic and Cultural Change in Western Europe,” Population and Development Review 9 (1983): 429. 

[34]   Lotta Persson and Jan M. Hoem, “Immigrant Fertility in Sweden, 2000-2011: A Descriptive Note,” Demographic Research 30 (March 20, 2014), 888. It is important to note that a substantial proportion of these immigrant women come from nearby Nordic nations and the European Union. Their post-arrival fertility is nearly identical to that of native-born Swedish women.

[35]   Ibid., 892-3; and Johan Tollebrant and Lotta Persson, “Immigrant Fertility in Sweden: A Cohort Perspective,” extended abstract for a paper presented at the European Population Conference, Budapest, Hungary, June 25-28, 2014, available at 


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