Opinion: Does Sweden’s ‘grey divide’ explain our Covid-19 crisis?

Opinion: Does Sweden's 'grey divide' explain our Covid-19 crisis?
Swedish families should think of older generations as more than just baby sitters, argues Lisa Bjurwald. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT
Sweden's strict generational system is central to understanding Swedish society including our scandalous treatment of the elderly during the Covid-19 crisis, writes Swedish columnist Lisa Bjurwald.

Research shows that intergenerational socialising is beneficial to the mental as well as the physical well-being of both young and old. For example, grandparents can be a crucial piece of the livspussel (“everyday life puzzle”) for parents with young children, Statistics Sweden has found. Living close to grandma and/or grandpa even lowers the risk of stressed-out parents having to take sick leave.

A rather wonderful idea popular a few years ago, but less reported since, is to allow young Swedes affected by the housing crisis to move into housing for the elderly. Still, it's more or less a forced mixing solution put in place by authorities, a strategy that can never replace a real change of people's hearts and minds. Because a fundamental problem in Sweden is the notable lack of intergenerational interaction and, on top of that, a brutal ageism that strengthens the divide.

Here, 20 to 30 is the most desirable age group on pretty much all fronts, from marketing to employment. Hence the never-ending lists of top 30 Swedish entrepreneurs, policymakers and so on under 30 (the New Yorker's take on such lists is, by the way, a modern classic).

You would think that experience is valued highly in Sweden as we're so slow at graduating from university and getting our first proper jobs, but recent studies show the opposite: discrimination based on age starts at 40 (!) on the Swedish job market. The over-60s are hardly visible at all, especially in politics – a stark contrast to, for example, the US. Swedish public service television has been criticised several times in recent years for getting rid of well-liked 60+ faces, who, in other countries, would be made senior correspondents or the like.

Photo: Naina Helén Jåma/TT

It's telling that when Dagens Nyheter this summer wrote about how the pandemic increases the divide between the elderly risk group and the more carefree (or careless) youth, they described the virus as fuelling the “conflict” between young and old. The quote is actually from a sociologist, Magnus Karlsson, who sees clear signs that the existing divide between different Swedish age groups now manifests itself in a lack of respect, mainly directed from the young towards the old.

Respect is certainly key to better treatment of the elderly and closer relations across generations. In Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and many European societies – in fact, a large part of the world – family members are treated more respectfully the older they grow (possibly with the exclusion of cooed-over babies).


Reporting from Italy at the end of summer, it was clear that they had different priorities than us. Youths made way for the elderly in the streets, official Covid-19 information posters on trains and buses underlined the importance of protecting the country's treasured nonne.

Declaring your love for grandma and grandpa, taking them out on walks, dining with them at least once a week, even living under the same roof – none of it is seen as remotely weird or embarrassing.

In Sweden, we re-connect as adults and welcome their services as unpaid nannies when our kids are toddlers, then hide them away in retirement homes with dreadful food, bad hygiene, scandal upon scandal where senior citizens are found malnourished, lying in their own excrement – and, this year, effectively locked up while a deadly virus was allowed to spread through their homes. What a way to repay them.

Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

So how can we cold-hearted Northerners import a bit of that Mediterranean warmth (yes, I know it's a cliché, but I would argue that in this case, it's 100 percent correct)?

In addition to increasing our respect, perhaps multiculturalism could hold a key. A Swedish writer with Middle Eastern roots wrote recently on her Facebook page about losing a relative and how the ethnic community rallied to her family's side in a show of support, not for a minute leaving them alone, hungry, or without someone doing their washing up. Young and old mixed in the most natural way, finding new friendships in a time of grief.

The comments from the writer's native Swedish followers were disheartening (“I got a digital card from one friend when my grandfather passed”). If we listen to the new Swedes and their experiences of a life where an individual's age matters less than his or her thoughts and ideas, experiences and interests, perhaps we could prevent new disasters such as the Covid-19 care-home scandal in the future – when, let's not forget, it's our turn to become the country's unwanted elders.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here. Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.