Sweden is known for its progressive social policies, albeit paid for by high taxes that fund a robust social safety net, generous parental leave and publicly funded healthcare and education.

There’s even a Swedish word that describes the concept of the state looking after everyone, whether rich or poor: Folkhemmet, or “people’s home”.

When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Swedes gave it 7.3, one of the highest grades among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

The OECD’s Better Life Index finds Sweden performs very well in many of the “dimensions” it uses to gauge living conditions and quality of life.

Image: OECD, Better Life Initiative

So why exactly is Sweden doing so much better than most other countries?

Some clues may be found in its approach to work-life balance.

Pioneering policy

In 2016, Sweden’s employment rate was one of the highest in the OECD. More than three-quarters of people aged 15 to 64 were in a paid job, compared with the OECD average of 68%.

Yet only 1% of Swedish employees regularly work more than 50 hours a week, one of the lowest rates in the OECD.

Sweden has been experimenting with six-hour work days, and offers flexible work arrangements geared towards improving the work-life balance.

But perhaps the most trailblazing policy of all is shared parental leave.

Back in 1974, Sweden became the first country to introduce it. Today parents can split 480 days between them for each child at 80% of their salaries for the first 390 days, with three “use-it-or-lose-it” months allocated to each partner.

This benefit has encouraged more Swedish fathers to take substantial parental leave, to the extent that on weekdays men pushing buggies around parks and feeding toddlers in cafes – known as the “latte pappas” – are a common sight.

As well as directly benefiting families, Sweden’s shared parental leave system is contributing to the broader goal of gender equality. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018 places Sweden 3rd out of 149 countries.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

The World Economic Forum has been measuring gender gaps in countries since 2006 in the annual Global Gender Gap Report.

To turn these insights into concrete action and national progress, we have developed the Closing the Gender Gap Task Force model for public private collaboration. These Task Forces have been convened in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Panama and Peru in partnership with the InterAmerican Development Bank; and in France, with a goal to expand the model to build a global network of economies accelerating gender parity.

In these eight countries CEOs and ministers are working together in a three-year time frame on policies that help to further close the economic gender gaps in their countries. This includes extended parental leave, subsidized childcare and removing unconscious bias in recruitment, retention and promotion practices.

If you are a business in one of the Closing the Gender Gap Task Force countries you can join the local membership base.

If you are a business or government in a country where we currently do not have a Closing the Gender Gap Task Force you can reach out to us to explore opportunities for setting one up.


Health, wealth and happiness

Good education and health are important to well-being, and Swedes are doing well on both these measures too.

Life expectancy at birth is 82 years, two years higher than the OECD average. Levels of PM2.5 – tiny airborne pollutants that can enter the lungs and harm the heart and respiratory system – are less than half the OECD average, and 96% of Swedes say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, compared with an OECD average of just over 80%.

The vast majority (83%) of Swedes aged 25-64 have completed high school, above the OECD average of 78%.

And the quality of education appears to be better, too. The average student scored 496 in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), with girls outperforming boys by 16 points. This compares with the OECD average of 486 and an average gap of just two points between girls and boys.

There’s also high voter turnout and a strong sense of community in Sweden – more than 90% of people say they know someone they could rely on in time of need, higher than the OECD average of 89%.

However, life in Sweden isn’t all a bed of roses.

Sweden’s state-funded services require high taxes. A fact that’s reflected in average take-home pay, which at $31,287 a year is lower than the OECD average of $33,604.

Despite its strong social security net, the country is experiencing increasing income inequality, with the top 20% of the population earning four times as much as the bottom. Anti-immigration sentiment is also on the rise.

Even so, Swedes have much to feel satisfied about. The OECD says the country has “a remarkable track record in sustaining a high level of well-being of its citizens”.