‘Immigrants could be Sweden’s top resource’

With a large population of educated immigrants, Malmö could become Europe's Silicon Valley - but only if Sweden opens up its jobs market to foreign-born professionals, writes integration expert Sylvia Schwaag Serger.

'Immigrants could be Sweden's top resource'
Left, Malmö in southern Sweden, and right, workers in tech-hub region Silicon Valley. Photos: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu and Johan Nilsson/TT

The whole world is talking about innovation and its importance to future competitiveness, welfare and to the possibilities of solving future societal challenges.

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has created an innovation council, President Barack Obama talks about how the US must 'out-innovate' – be more creative than the rest of the world – and President Xi Jinping believes that innovation is key to the future of China.

A precondition for innovation is that a country or a region is able to attract competent people and that it cultivates and values the knowledge of those already living in the country. According to AnnaLee Saxenian, professor at the Berkeley School of Information, the success of Silicon Valley can to a great extent be attributed to its ability to attract people from emerging markets, such as India and China, and benefit from their expertise and contact with their home countries.

The Skåne region in southern Sweden and its biggest city, Malmö, is not that different from Silicon Valley: a greater part of the population is foreign-born than in the rest of the country – 36 percent in Silicon Valley compared to 19 percent in Skåne – and there are leading universities in the region.

But while Silicon Valley's diversity is seen as key to its success, Skåne battles social exclusion, segregation and high unemployment. Is that because Skåne has the “wrong” kind of immigration? Perhaps, but that's not the only reason. Even highly educated foreign-born graduates find it difficult to get on to the labour market and many Swedes returning from abroad feel that their overseas experience is neither valued nor wanted by Swedish employers.

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According to the OECD the employment gap between well-educated native and foreign-born people is much bigger in Sweden than in other OECD countries.

Educated immigrants and former Swedish expats are often told that they are overqualified. Some managers seem to feel threatened by the fact that others are better educated or have more experience. Returning Swedes feel that their careers have been damaged by their absence from the Swedish labour market.

Every day people arrive in Sweden with exactly the degrees and competence needed to plug skills gaps in Sweden: welders, engineers, teachers and people with business degrees. Many of these new arrivals speak several languages and have relevant knowledge about and networks in future growth and export markets. They come here as refugees, students, labour migrants, returnees, or love refugees such as myself. But instead of giving them jobs and the opportunity to show what they are able to do, valuable time is wasted by discussing whether their degree meets Swedish standards.

Those who move to Sweden are forced to take – sometimes poor-quality – courses to learn Swedish and must often obtain a Swedish degree on top of the one they already bring, something that costs both the newcomer and Sweden time and money. Alternatively, they are screened out of hiring processes, perhaps not out of malice, but due to a narrow view of competence and simply because managers like to hire people similar to themselves. It feels safe and you know that they will fit in.

Many Swedish workplaces and environments are still very homogeneous, even though Sweden is more of an immigration country than the US if you look at the proportion of the population born abroad (around 16 percent in Sweden compared to 13 percent in the US).

Should Sweden help foreign-born workers? Photo: Melker Dahlstrand/

According to Statistics Sweden, the proportion of graduates among those who have moved to Sweden since the year 2000 is greater than the corresponding figure for those born there – and never before have so many well-educated individuals fled to Sweden than today. How do we ensure that these people's skills are utilized, to the benefit of Sweden as well as to the immigrants themselves? How do we ensure that their competence and motivation do not wither at centres for asylum seekers?

Expertise is a perishable commodity that languishes if it is not used. Important resources are wasted in the time it takes people to establish themselves on the Swedish labour market. Could Skåne take the lead and develop a vision of skills that would turn the region into the Silicon Valley of Europe?

Germany, which accepts the highest number of asylum seekers in the EU, uses so-called talent scouts who identify refugees with in-demand degrees and skills, and help connect them and employers. German newspaper Die Zeit call refugees “talents on standby” and although not all immigrants – or Swedes, for that matter – are talents as such, the attitude sees possibilities and potential rather than problems.

My British PhD supervisor at the London School of Economics called Sweden “the most civilized country in the world”. It is in many ways a good description. The problem is only that while Sweden is one of the most open, global and welcoming countries in the world, the jobs market is too closed-off and the view of competence too narrow to be able to make use of the skills of outsiders.

Innovation is about seeing opportunities long before anybody else does and new ideas often arise from meetings between people from different backgrounds (gender, education, ethnicity). The question is if Sweden is able to change its focus and transform today's “immigration problems” to the country's greatest resource for the future.

Integration expert Sylvia Schwaag Serger is head of international strategy for Sweden's innovation agency Vinnova. This is a translation of a debate article which first appeared in the Sydsvenskan newspaper.

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Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

Hygge, the Danish art of getting cosy, has taken the world by storm. But the Swedish equivalent is refreshingly different, says David Crouch 

Down with hygge! Sweden’s mys is more real, fun and inclusive

It is around six years since the Danish word hygge entered many of our languages. Hygge, pronounced hue-guh and generally translated as the art of cosiness, exploded almost overnight to become a global lifestyle phenomenon.

Hygge dovetailed with mindfulness and fed into other popular trends such as healthy eating, and even adult colouring books. “The Little Book of Hygge” became a publishing sensation and has been translated into 15 languages. In time for Christmas, its author has just issued a second book, “My Hygge Home”, one of dozens already on the market. This is the season of peak hygge, of candles, log fires, cups of cocoa and comforting music.

There is nothing wrong with new ways to relax, and certainly no harm in identifying them with Scandinavia. But as a guide to living your life, there are some problems with hygge. 

First, the original meaning of the word is too broad and subtle to enable a clear grasp of the concept among non-Danes. This probably helps to explain its appeal – hygge is an empty bottle into which you can pour whatever liquid you like.

Patrick Kingsley, who wrote a book about Denmark several years before the hygge hype, was “surprised to hear people describe all sorts of things” as hygge. Danes, he said, would use the word when talking about a bicycle, a table, or even an afternoon stroll. 

So it is hardly surprising that, outside Denmark, hygge is applied rather indiscriminately. Last week the New York Times devoted an entire article to achieving hygge while riding the city’s subway, of all places. “A train, after all, is basically a large sled that travels underground, in the dark,” it said, trying too hard to find a hint of Nordicness on the overcrowded railway.

READ ALSO: Danish word of the day – hyggeracisme

Hygge has become an exotic and mysterious word to describe more or less anything you want. It is as if someone decided that the English word “nice” had a magical meaning that contained the secret to true happiness, and then the whole non-English speaking world made great efforts to achieve the perfect feeling of “nice”. 

A second problem with hygge is that, in Denmark itself, it seems to operate like a badge of Danishness that can only be enjoyed by Danes themselves – a kind of cultural border that outsiders cannot cross. You can walk down a Danish street in the dark, one journalist was told, look through the windows and spot who is Danish and who is foreign just by whether their lighting is hygge or not.

When writer Helen Russell spent a year in Denmark, she was intrigued by hygge and asked a lifestyle coach about it. “It’s hard to explain, it’s just something that all Danes know about,” she was told. How could an immigrant to Denmark get properly hygge, Russell asked? “You can’t. It’s impossible,” was the unhelpful reply. It can’t be a coincidence that the far-right Danish Peoples Party has put a clear emphasis on hygge, as if immigration is a threat to hygge and therefore to Danishness itself. 

READ ALSO: It’s official – Hygge is now an English word

Outside Denmark, this exclusivity has taken on another aspect: where are all the children? Where amid the hygge hype are the bits of lego on the floor, the mess of discarded clothes, toys and half-eaten food, the bleeping iPads and noisy TVs? “Hygge is about a charmed existence in which children are sinisterly absent,” noted the design critic for the Financial Times. It’s as if the Pied Piper of hygge has spirited them away so you can get truly cosy. 

But there is a bigger problem with hygge. It is largely an invention, the work of some clever marketing executives. After spotting a feature about hygge on the BBC website, two of London’s biggest publishers realised this was “a perfect distillation of popular lifestyle obsessions”. They set out to find people who could write books for them on the subject, and so two bestsellers were born, spawning a host of imitations. 

Sweden has a different word that means roughly the same thing: mys (the noun) and mysig (the adjective). There have even been some half-hearted attempts to sell mys to a foreign audience in the same way as hygge. But the real meaning of mys in Swedish society is rather different, it seems to me. The reason for this, I think, is that mys has become so firmly identified with Friday nights, or fredagsmys – the “Friday cosy”. 

Fredagsmys is a collective sigh of relief that the working / school week is over, and now it is time for the whole family to come together in front of some trashy TV with a plate of easy finger-food. The word first appeared in the 1990s, entered the dictionary in 2006, and became a semi-official national anthem three years later with this joyous ad for potato crisps:

In this portrayal, mys is radically different to hygge. It is a celebration of the ordinary, witty and multi-cultural, featuring green-haired goths and a mixed-race family with small children. Food is central to fredagsmys, and what is the typical food of choice? Mexican, of course! Not a herring in sight.

Why Mexican? It seems nobody is really sure, but tacofredag now has roots in Swedish society. Tacos, tortillas, and all the accompanying spices and sauces take up a whole aisle of the typical Swedish supermarket. Swedes are accustomed to eating bread with various bits and pieces on top, according to a specialist in Swedish food culture, while the Swedish tradition of smörgåsbord (open sandwiches) makes a buffet meal seem natural. The fussiness of tacos is even reminiscent of a kräftskiva crayfish party.

There is no cultural exclusivity here. On the contrary, fredagsmys food could equally be Italian, North American, Middle-Eastern, British or French. And children are absolutely central to a good Friday cosy. 

With Swedish mys, everybody is welcome. Get cosy and relax, but do it by mixing and getting messy, rather than retreating into pure, perfect, rarified isolation. There is a time and a place for hygge. But the Swedish version is more real, more fun, and more inclusive.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University