I was recently visiting southern Sweden (Lund and Malmö). No matter how I try to twist and turn it, I cannot lose the impression that Sweden is in decline, at least in relation to its Nordic neighbours (Iceland excluded).
Sweden has problems with unemployment, particularly (and worryingly) amongst young Swedes. This is no secret. I also personally know of several cases of fresh graduates (in engineering, biomedicine, and other “employable” degree courses) who after graduating from university in 2002 eight years later still have only had the following occupations: unemployed, garbage collector, cab driver, call centre agent, or studying useless university course because of inability to find a job (university education is free of charge and the government offers a bursary based on a combination of a student loan and a stipend).
I was reminded of this when I found myself standing on the platform outside the dirty rundown train station in Malmö a Monday morning. The scene is almost surreal to me. Amidst beggars and drug addicts you see a series of questionable cabs with taxi signs that are coming loose from the car. The station is filled with commuters who commute from the Malmö/Lund area to Copenhagen. This is a necessity because unemployment in the Malmö/Lund area is very high. When I board the train to Copenhagen it is packed to the limit with commuters. They can barely close the train doors. The scene reminds me of the packed subway trains I experienced when I was working in Beijing.
92% of the 17,100 people who commuted between Malmö and Copenhagen in 2007 lived in Sweden and worked in Denmark. According to the New York Times, 35,000 Swedes worked in Norway in 2007. These numbers are probably higher today.
I wonder if this says something about Sweden as a whole. I doubt it. However, some parts of Sweden are clearly in trouble. It is not exactly a great sign that young Swedes have to travel to Denmark and Norway in order to find jobs. I do not know what to do about the situation. I suspect the primary root cause is the lack of liquid capital in the country. The middle-class and upper-class Swedes do not have the money required to make the investments that are needed for new start-ups to gain a critical mass. Therefore entrepreneurs have to either apply for small sums from various government investment funds or talk to local venture capitalists. The government has no clue (and provides too little money anyway) and most reasonable people would also find the venture capitalist demands in Sweden ridiculous in relation to the sizes of their investments. Hence, companies with actual promise are started abroad instead. A well-known recent example is Skype.