Peter McGraw recently left the Solo studio – Indiana Jones style – to investigate why Sweden, in general, and Stockholm, in particular, are the best places in the world to be single. There he came across Lars Trägårdh’s work and new co-authored book: The Swedish Theory of Love. In this episode, Lars and Peter discuss why Swedes and Swedish society is a model for going solo.
Listen to Episode #135 here
Sweden – The Singles’ Capital Of The World
I left the Solo studio, Indiana Jones style, to investigate why Stockholm is the singles capital of the world. The trip coincided with the Midsummer Festival, a national celebration of the longest day of the year. My metaphorical bush whacking revealed my guest’s work. In particular, his new coauthored book, The Swedish Theory of Love.
Lars Trägårdh is a professor, historian, journalist, and public intellectual who has lived much of his life in the US but is now back home in his native land of Sweden. We discuss why Swedes and Swedish society is a model for going solo, and he reveals a paradox that allows Swedes to be the ultimate solos. Their intense individualism is buoyed by a strong social democratic state that cares for its citizens.
Bonus material is back for the members of the Solo community in which Lars and I discuss how the Swedish government’s response to the COVID pandemic illustrates their unusual approach to politics and culture. You can sign up for the Solo community at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. We would love to have you participate. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Thank you. It’s nice to be with you.
It’s a pleasure. I like to say that Sweden, in general, and Stockholm, specifically, are the singles capital of the world. Do you agree?
You got a lot of facts supporting you here. If you look at single-person households, it is clear that Sweden is at the top and Stockholm in particular. Stockholm, as an urban place, is different from more rural places in Sweden. It’s more traditional in that perspective. There’s something to be said to that and we’ll sure talk about many other aspects of that, but, for starters, I can agree with you.
For the readers, a little bit of data, One-person households are on the rise, especially in the last several years. In the United States, 28% of households are solo. In Stockholm, 50%. One out of every two households has one occupant. That’s striking, and it’s the world leader in that. That’s due to a lot of reasons, and you’ve helped me understand some others. Your book has certainly helped me. I enjoyed reading it.
The rise of singles is accelerating this tendency for people to live alone. There are more single people on the planet. There are more people who are going to opt to live alone. There are lots of reasons why there are more single people. People are living longer in some places. Immigration is causing that. Immigrants tend to be single. The rise of technology and innovation makes it easier to live on your own more easy than ever before, even with things like washers, dryers, Uber Eats, and so on.
The rise of women, in particular, this notion that when you give women economic and educational opportunities, some of them opt out of having families of getting married and go solo. I have something that I talk a lot about, and this is the idea that happy single people beget single people. When you look around and there are other single people thriving, you say, “I can do that myself.”
If I had guessed prior to meeting you, Lars, I would’ve guessed the reason why Sweden has many singles and many people living alone is simply the rise of women. This is an incredibly equalitarian country, maybe the most in the world also. There are lots of singles, so they beget other singles, but your work shed light on something that I didn’t consider. That’s the role that culture and politics play in allowing people to be single, facilitating solo living, and this notion of Swedish individualism, which I didn’t know much about prior to my trip and reading your wonderful book. Can we start with this notion of Swedish individualism with the story that you opened the book with and that is your education in America?
You are referring to my surprise as I arrived as a seventeen-year-old in the United States. I came filled with an idea of Sweden being this collectivist, socialist country. America, on the other hand, I thought of rugged individualism, individual freedom, and those sorts of ideas. To some extent, there were things there that were correct. Sweden is a well-functioning society, and it’s not as if there are no social values here.
It was also true that when I then applied for college in the United States, I went around to different campuses. I always had the same question, which was, A, let’s assume that I will be admitted on academic rounds. I was a bit cocky at the time. How do I pay for this? Even back then, there was a huge difference between free education in Sweden and a fairly expensive price tag with tuition, room, and board in the US.
I got this reply from Pomona College, where I ended up, which is the only college I was open to foreigners at the time on equal terms. They were very good about it. We have financial aid. I said, “I love the sound of that. How do I get it?” They gave me a bunch of forms to fill out. One set of those was simple. They had to do with my income and my wealth. That was a bunch of zeros and one signature. That took me about ten seconds.
The second set of forms took me back a bit because it concerned my parent’s income and wealth. I said, what do they have to do with this? I’m an adult and have no particular economic relationships with my parents.” Certainly, there is nothing there that isn’t truly voluntary. We will occasionally give each other gifts, but that has nothing to do with paying tens of thousands of dollars for my pleasure.
I mentioned that to them. They looked at me and said, “In America, there is an expectation that parents do these things. They keep doing it through graduate school, at times.” I said, “That’s wonderful. These are wonderful people. I know I love America but isn’t there a power issue here?” Let’s oppose for a minute that I have some wise old fashioned parents who say, “I’m willing to fork over some cash if you do something useful.” For example, study economics, medicine, become a lawyer, or something like that.
What if I want to do something truly useless, like becoming a historian? You’re doomed to eternal poverty. Right. Could they simply say, “We are not going to fund that?” Wouldn’t that be an undue exercise of power over me as an autonomous individual? At this point, the Pomona College people looked at me like, “Mars, or something like that.” Fortunately, my parents were as poor as I was. In the end, practically speaking, they had no consequence for me. It made me think about the difference between America and Sweden on that level. That was a spark that eventually would lead to this book that you mentioned earlier.
In previous episodes, a couple of guests and I played The Game of Life, which is an American board game. It’s focused on career and family. There are no options for the person to choose a creative, meaningful, yet impoverished, remarkable life in the game. Your game is designed for you to retire with as much money as possible. This is reflected in a lot of things, including that thing.
I like that story a lot because if you’re American, you never question it. At the same time, you think America is this incredibly individualistic place. It is culturally in many ways, but what you’re showing is this notion of individualism in Sweden goes further and is facilitated by the culture. You’re able to go it alone in Sweden more easily than in the United States. That seems paradoxical because it’s the government that helps you do that.
This was something that became quickly a key insight for me that in America, you tend to confuse individualism with anti-stateism. What’s going on is a suspicion of the state. I should trust Washington. Why should we allow the state to intrude right into the private sphere? A lot of that makes sense in the United States because these are people who started a country, they flint, religious persecution, political oppression in Europe and later on other countries. The first thing they do is create the constitution, which carefully limits state power and the concentration of power in the state in many different ways, federalism, division of power, the three branches of government, so forth, and so on. The bill of rights is a negative right that limits state power.
In Sweden, you see virtually the opposite rights. We have a long history of a fairly stable state structure and a fair amount of trust in the common institutions. Therefore, instead, we have what we can think of positive rights. The right that the state to make investments in different ways in all individuals. Underlying that, during the modern period has been an ethos of supporting or maximizing individual freedom and autonomy.
There is this key insight that freedom depends on resources. You can’t be free if you’re in debt, whether it’s in debt to your parents, bank, or whatever it is. Therefore, the idea is to put a premium on equal opportunity and social mobility at the individual level, regardless of the wealth of parents or, for that matter, spouses.
This story that you and I talked about earlier about the conditions under which you get a loan or support for studying is not that you don’t take into account your parent’s income or wealth, but there’s also spousal incoming wealth that is also not taken into account. Neither one of those should matter, or you are in relationship to the state to guarantee that possibility. That’s where the whole idea, the state’s relationship to the individual, differed profoundly between the United States and Sweden. That
It excites me as someone who values personal freedom and chases the idea that you are an incomplete individual without a partner that you might create a society or a system. Either at the micro level for you or at the country level, that can support your ability to choose, to enter into careers, relationships, hobbies, etc., of your own volition, rather than someone holding a carrot or a stick.
You are spot on here, and the key here, and this is something also I always try to explain, is it’s not that sweets are asocial. It’s not like they are all like atoms walking around in solitude or being lonely. There’s no real evidence to that effect. The point is that you can enter relationships on a voluntary basis when you want to be in a relationship, and you can leave it if you no longer want it without disastrous consequences. Not financial, but also in terms of stigmatization of different sorts.
To be single for a short or longer period in your life is not something that turns you into a freak in a finished context. Whereas in the US, there is a bit more of this idea that here’s an ideal type. If you don’t live up to that one, you are flawed in some fundamental way. There are both economic and social aspects that come into play here. That’s the stuff that you’re talking about that there’s a cultural base for those differentiations.
To preview, we’re going to look at some of the institutions in Sweden, and we’re going to talk a little bit about dating romance and relationships. Before we do that, I want you to help me understand Sweden a little better. I’ve been to Sweden. Fortunately, I’ve only been in the summer. I see the best Sweden offers, and I’ve had wonderful experiences there.
Let’s talk about the Swedes. In your book, you put forth these two ideas that at first seem in conflict, especially if you’re an American, and that is the support of the state and individual freedoms. You also talk a lot about the nature of Swedes. You use the term asocial sociability as a descriptor, and you also use this term socialist individualist, this push-pull between individual sovereignty and the need to belong to society. You need a government to pave the roads you’re going to go on your solo road trips. Let’s dive a little bit more deeply into that to help people understand it.
In the book, one point of departure is a famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who had a profound insight that touches deeply on our topic of conversation here. He says, “Human beings are defined by two impulses and needs.” The impulse we see in humans, in general, is to try to be as sovereign as possible over your own life. We are, in some sense, deeply flawed in that. We are almost obsessed with individual sovereign freedom at the individual level.
At the same time, the other impulse or need is that we cannot survive alone for any length of time. We need to survive. The key to creating a happy society is one that can navigate and balance these two impulses, the desire for individual freedom and sovereignty on the one hand and the absolute need to create a functioning society.
The argument that I make is that it is Swedish social contract has been rather sophisticated in allowing for maximizing individual autonomy of freedom while not threatening the basis for society. Instead, this contract, what I call status individualism, this closed relationship between the state and the individual, enables the state to provide these opportunities to maximize your freedom. It’s predicated on something often missing in the United States, which is a fundamental trust in the state in our common institutions, sometimes referred to as the Nordic gold.
This is almost like a crazy degree to which Swedes tend to trust each other in society and have confidence in the fundamental legitimacy of our institutions. The stuff that we can call the state in a broad sense. There’s an existential dimension here to it, which is what Kant is talking about, but it also translates into an institutional structure and the institutional structure needs to address these existential needs.
One of the existential threats that I think people don’t think enough about is the notion that no one ever can be able to fully understand you. You’re the only person who has full access to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. As a result of that, having some comfort with who you are allows you to be the best person that you can be. What you’re arguing is yes, but you need other people to be the best person that you want to be, and there’s no, as Kant says, “Escaping that paradox.”
You have to live with this paradox and try to make it as productive as possible. As I usually say, right, the one reason I left Sweden to go to the United States was because in the early 1970s, Sweden was still quite paternalistic. Let’s say the state intended to be a tad too invasive in terms of trying to direct the citizens to tell them what was the good life.
For me, it was always a case that the individual is not there to please society. Society is there to maximize possibilities for the individual. That frankly was what attracted me to the United States until I realized that there was another set of issues and problems in the US. Over time, Sweden has become a more libertarian in its state. The balance of power between individual states has shifted in favor of the individual.
In a way, it has been almost reversed in the US, where the nature of politics now in the US has tended, unfortunately, to encourage distrust of the state that throws back citizens even more into the state of dependency on family, communities, and other institutions at the subnational level. In that sense, this balance is critical. We have to have this fundamental insight that we do need each other. We do need to create functional institutions, but those institutions are not there to limit our freedom. They are there to
There’s a paradox there. The more you trust the government, the more the government behaves in a way that becomes trustworthy in terms of who you vote for, who you support, and so on. Let’s talk a little bit about the government since we’re on the topic for a moment. In this social contract, you mentioned one of the elements to it, and that’s free education. That now allows you to choose the path you want as a young person but as an adult. If you want to study basket weaving, you can study basket weaving when you’re not having your parents trying to turn you into an accountant.
Healthcare is one that is striking in comparison. One of the phenomena that I find disturbing is that people will partner up in the United States to get healthcare or to have economic security. If I lose my job, I have a partner who also has a job. It’s a hedge. In Sweden, you have universal healthcare, unemployment, and a cushion in case things go wrong, which allows you to take risks.
There are two things there. You mentioned them both. One is that it’s individualized. That is the same. Your healthcare is not tied to your marital status or being a member of a family. It’s strictly individualized. You have access to that, no matter what your lifestyle may look like. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is. None of these factors have any bearing. That’s one thing.
The second one is that because it’s part of the social contract, the individual has this state. It does not affect your freedom of risk-taking in the market society. Sometimes people say, “Sweded here, living this our nanny state. They probably like that probably deprives some initiative and entrepreneurship.” There’s no evidence to that effect because it is the opposite. It is because you don’t worry about the baseline stuff like education and healthcare, which allows you to say, “F*** you,” to an employer that you don’t like, or you can say, “I like to take a risk and start a company.
You can do those things, or we can think of them as American virtue, risk-take, and initiatives. This is the reason that Nordic countries nowadays rank high when it comes to rankings of high-performing market economies. You talk about the Nordic supermodel. This is stuff coming out of the economist in the financial times, not from people on the left.
The Nordic countries have gone from being purely the darlings of the left in this idea of the welfare state. Two, being viewed now as investment states, states that provide the resources that create human capital that is enormously beneficial for both individuals and companies, it goes hand in glove with the logic of the market society with all of its innovative kinds of powers.
As I mentioned, I, Indiana Jones style, left the Solo studio and came to Sweden to investigate this myself. One of the fascinating things was that some of the insights I had didn’t come from Swedes because they are in it. They don’t see it. I had lovely conversations, but one of the most interesting observations was made by a Russian woman that I met, who was living in Stockholm and is an entrepreneur. She had left her job as an attorney in order to start a business. What she said was, and I’m curious about your reaction to this, “In Russia, your family says there’s not much you can do, and the government says there’s not much you can do.”
If you imagine, this says like a graph, an X and Y, Russia is in the bottom left part of the graph. She said, “In Sweden, your family says you can do anything you want, and the government says you can do anything you want.” Swedes are at the top right part of the paragraph. She saw it as both a blessing and a curse. You almost have too much choice. One of the things she pointed out is that she’s like, “That’s why Sweden is so entrepreneurial.” This is reflected in what you were talking about.”
At the same time, she is gesturing toward the narrative you also find, and we write a little about it in the book you mentioned. There is also a narrative of Swedish loneliness of alienation or anomie. That arrives from a perspective that tends to celebrate or romanticize family values. Truly happy people are family people. Here, you see people both left and right tend to be hostile to individuals because it smacks egoism, narcissism, solitude, and so forth. There is a critique that you see of this. You see it also when they talk about the elderly. The idea is that without a family, the elderly are going to be by themselves, die alone, and be brought away in their single residence apartments in Stockholm.
There is a strong argument in that direction. The problem is if you talk to people doing empirical research, comparing Sweden to Southern Eastern Europe before Russia. You can also compare it to Italy or Spain. The fact is that there is no empirical evidence to support that. These are urban legends more than they are actual social facts.
None of that means that there are no unhappy people in Sweden. That would be ridiculous. Most people getting old will involve losing friends. If you live long enough, that’s a blessing in disguise because it means that eventually, all of your good friends will be gone, and you can’t replace them with such ease. You’re going to find older people who are lonely, but it’s nothing compared to what you see in other parts of the world. The reason you think is back to what you and I talked about before is that you are not inserted in relationships against your will because a family can be a wonderful institution, but it can also be a terror institution.
It can be oppressive. It’s not something you choose. I usually say sometimes people that when we talk about families and mothers, it’s one thing to protest against the formal institution, be it the state or some other institution at a more formal level. Those ones, it’s clear who has the power and who doesn’t have the power. If you don’t like the employer, you can leave. In a family, power is also disguised as love. The love of a mother, when it takes this form of exercising power, the love of a mother is much harder to protest against or defend yourself against because who wants to be somehow criticizing the love of the mother? That’s very difficult.
Families can be institutions where there’s this insidious exercise of power that, in a way, is hard to put your finger on because it’s taboo to be critical of the family. One of the liberating aspects of Sweden is that you don’t have that romantic family values rhetoric. One of the things that I’ve always found more questionable in the US. I felt people talk a little too much about family values or community without critiquing it right where it needs to be a critic.
I’ve never had that articulated in that way. Yet, I have felt that, and I have seen that. I’m a professor, and I regularly have conversations with students who want to study one thing or the other. Their parents, who love them very much, exert a lot of influence over their choices, and they’re able to do so for two reasons. One is they’re often picking up the bill or assisting. The student feels like they don’t have much choice. The other one is that defying one’s parents can be seen as selfish and anti-family. What you’re describing is the scenario where parents let their kids go culturally.
One of the things that I found in Sweden is children leave the house young. They go off to college. Once they’re done college, they go off to go to the big city. They go to Stockholm to get things going. That is seen as a good thing, a desirable thing that’s there. Because of these government support systems, you’re able to do those things young, and you’re able to take those kinds of risks. That’s great.
One other observation that comes from what you’re saying is people like to say, “Humans are social creatures.” They justify whatever it is about family and whatever these kinds of things are what is anti-solo in a sense. What I like about Kant is it’s like, “Humans are social creatures, but they’re also individual creatures.” What we’re talking about is striking the right balance. Some places don’t have that balance much, and it seems Sweden does.
I usually call this social prejudice. We see this coming politically, both from the left and the right. That is to say, “There is something better, nicer, morally higher about emphasizing community and society.” Whereas, there’s always something questionable about emphasizing individualism, even in the United States.
My point here is that you’ve got to have two balls in the air. I am not going to be forced into a position where I have to choose between one or the other. The challenge is rather different. How do you make society truly work for the benefit of individuals so that they can choose on a daily basis when they want to be social and when they prefer, as critics say, “To be alone.” What is the problem with wanting to be alone? Many hours in a day, choose to be with people when you want to be with people. That seems to be the crucial insight we need to use as a building block to make a better site.
Speaking of these two balls, you talk about the Swedes being tender people and loving nature. How does this relate to asocial sociability?
I have two key terms that I use. One is that I mentioned earlier, status individuals, which is this more institutional perspective on how you build a society when we already talked about some of those institutions. The other one is the existential dimension. This is why it’s called The Swedish Theory of Love. What that says is that there is a preference in Swedish culture to build your relationships with other people on voluntariness rather than on duties. Your tenderness is based on the idea that you are with someone that you love, a friend or a family member, because you choose to be with them. Where nature comes into the picture is that Swedes also have this love for nature that tends to be associated with escaping from society.
That’s one reason I always love the American West because you go right to the West as opposed to the East Coast in the United States. You’re confronted with the smallness of the human in the broader natural context. That’s something very liberating about that. A, because you have a more reasonable view of humanity at that moment. Also, you can escape sociability and society and be by yourself in this majestic now natural landscape. This is a narrative we see in Sweden over a long period of time. It’s a celebration of nature, connected to the possibility of being alone. Only by having that possibility can you then later on how a certain tenderness and a natural affection for other human beings when you choose to be with them.
Lars, you gave me a great gift. You helped me figure out part of the reason I’m drawn to where I live. I’m a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I live in Denver in an urban area, but I’m at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. I can see them from my window. Several years ago, I took my first flight as a graduation gift to Colorado. I did a nine-day solo trip around the state exploring it. I flirted with the Rocky Mountains. I came from New Jersey. It is the most densely populated state in the union.
There is something about the idea that you can’t escape people when you live in New Jersey. What I can do is, even though I live in an urban place, I can escape people rather easily. I could drive in 1 or 2 directions. Within an hour, even less, I can be in the middle of nowhere. If you drive in one direction is prettier than if you drive in the other direction. Nonetheless, it’s a majestic place. I think some of its nature and some of its nurture.
I am Swedish in some ways. I think I could fit in, in some ways, in that culture recognizing this. I am enthralled by the American West by its possibilities, expansiveness, and also for the potential to get solitude in a beautiful natural place. I find that idea of love of nature that the Swedes have, this dual love of nature, the solitude and the inspiration to be close to me and, even know I was pursuing, frankly. Thank you for that.
I can relate to that because myself, I’m interesting enough. My first year in the US, when I was seventeen, I spent in New Jersey. There’s nothing wrong with New Jersey. It had a lot of wonderful people there, but I was driven by the desire to go West. Young man to go West. I made it. I’m out to California already by Christmas. I went up straight up to Lake Tahoe in the mountains there. Not quite as majestic as where you are in Colorado, but not bad.
Someone made me a tape when I was moving West for the first time. There’s a Pet Shop Boys song called Go West, which is very fun. We’ve talked about some institutions, government, and family. I want to talk about a few more. I want to talk about housing and the nature of housing in Sweden, especially in Stockholm. As I mentioned, 50% of households are solo.
I met a Swedish woman who lives in Stockholm. We had coffee, and she mentioned offhandedly about all these Swedes living in their boxes. I joke about my box in the sky. I live in an apartment. I love apartment living for myself. For people who haven’t seen Stockholm, it’s a beautiful city, but it’s a low city. It’s not a city of skyscrapers. Most buildings are 4 to 6 stories or so thing. There are a lot of skies to be seen in Stockholm, and it’s on the water. It’s a lovely place.
Down the street from where I was staying, there’s an apartment building with two towers. The Norra Tornen is what it’s called. It stood out to me in part because it’s a skyscraper. It’s an apartment building, and it’s very boxy. You have to see it. It’s almost like the apartments are protruding from the building. You can see these individual units sticking out. As if you like, you stacked up a whole bunch of shoe boxes. It’s noticeable that the tallest building, A, is an apartment building, and B has this box-like. What is it about housing? Is it that this is the nature of housing and people adapt? Is it that people prefer this, and it’s reflected in that choice? What’s happening with housing in Sweden?
It always sorts the chicken nor the egg type of warrior. I think there is perhaps an element of both. You see, for example, that Swedes grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a period of immense economic growth in Sweden. Sweden was poor into the 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, the government was trying to create modern housing for everybody.
That project was a bit of a social engineering project, and there were ideas about what was the proper size of a family. There was an idea of a family there that they were not big apartments. They were meant to be modern primarily and to be able to house a family with two children. That created a base of some sort, but these apartments were not American-style grandiose apartments. They were still modest.
Over time, what happens is that the market starts to operate more, not simply the state with the social engineering project. You see how the choices for single-living or one-bedroom apartments become more noticeable. As apartment building becomes more commercial and sensitive to the market, you see where the trend is. You keep these smaller apartments that were built during this big project era of the 1960s that tended to be not that grandiose to begin with. They might be two-bedroom places, but they might also be one-bedroom places. Later on, one-bedroom places become popular.
What you see now is Stockholm. I went to a lecturer by an interesting architect who had done analysis. What does it look like? If you analyze all of these different department units that are there, what he could show was that 1 and 2-bedroom apartments were completely dominated. The effect now when we have a lot more immigrants coming to Sweden. Something like 20% of the population is immigrants. It is the biggest in Europe now. Immigration rates are higher there than in the US even.
That’s interesting because some of the people coming then from outside of Sweden come with a different preference, as far as living family sizes, maybe multi-generational households. They are confronted with the fact that there are simply few apartments of that size to be had. There is new tension between the preference of some people in Sweden and what’s available at this level.
The biggest story, the one that you are pointing towards over time, has been this preference for relatively small apartments that allow for individuals. We also see something else. We tied to this, which goes back to the connection between apartments and family life. I don’t know if you ran into this when you were in Sweden. Because of this gender equality and individualism, this has this consequence that people can divorce relatively easily.
Divorce rates are high in Sweden, but they are often not that acrimonious. When you have kids and you divorce, it doesn’t mean that the kids end up automatically with a mother and the father gets to see them on occasion, maybe every second weekend or something like that, or simply pay money in alimonies. Instead, you see a division of labor. Let’s say you and I was married. We had two kids. What happens then in modern Sweden is that you live a solo life for one week, and the next week, you have two kids. You switch back and forth.
That hands to promote these relatively small apartments, but where 1 or 2 bedroom apartment also has a function because if you have kids over a certain period of time. What it does is enables a mixture of family life and individualism. This has become a standing joke in Sweden that some people who are still in traditional marriages are slightly envious of their friends because those guys get to have one week every second week, and they are individualists. The next week they do their family stuff with their kids. This is a modern phenomenon in Sweden, which is funny.
I have made this joke before. You’re the first person to ever make it to me. I have friends who are divorced and have children, and they live exactly that life. One week with the kids and one-week solo. They much prefer it to their original marriage situation. They get the best of both worlds. They’re ready to hand their kids over to their father or mother. They’re happy to see them when they come back. Let’s segue into talking about businesses.
The United States is behind in terms of its housing. There are a lot of legacy projects. In my view, they’ve been building a building that is what’s called micro apartments. These are small apartments with much more common spaces focused on individuals, and that’s exciting. There should and could be more of that, especially if the decision-makers were solo or were paying attention to some of these trends.
I have a project called Single Insights, the Science of Solos, in which I communicate with organizations and policymakers that single people have different needs, wants, and different lifestyles. The world built for families, especially businesses that cater to families, is missing an opportunity to escape the competition to serve this growing differentiated group. I wasn’t able to pick this up in Sweden, but I’m curious, have businesses adjusted their products and practices to this large group of single people, especially those who live alone?
You have both. It’s a little bit like you, and I was joking about these postmodern family constructions. There is a fundamental insight that we now live, sociologically speaking, in a society which has these different types of arrangements. Let’s not forget that there are also people over their lifespan who move in and out of these constellations. It’s not that you are single your whole life or that you are in a family your whole life. Both of these things are happening concurrently or lifestyles that businesses better cater to because otherwise, as you are suggesting, they will lose out on opportunities.
One of the things that are interesting, I was familiar with, and I lived in Berkeley with the movement that was called Cohousing that I’m sure you’re familiar with, which was built on this idea of flexibility where you don’t have to live in a commune like in the ‘70s style commune because that could be oppressive. Instead, you combine it to say, “Everybody owns their own apartment, but you have certain types of communal activities. “That saves money and is smarter used for all sorts of financial and ecological reasons.”
I was curious, “Is this going to come to Sweden?” It’s an interesting idea. You see some experiments in that direction, but I would say in the final analysis, if they’re choosing right the single route, many people want to be single all the way through. It’s my sense. You have these experiments. You see it also like with the elderly, for example, who decide they want to combine some community idea with sovereignty.
It’s an interesting question of yours, and it’s something to keep an eye on. I don’t think many people ask your question there quite in that nosy way. It’s something that we need to look at more seriously because it goes back to the stuff you and I have talked about, the paradox of living in society and yet, wanting to be free from too much ties that bind and how that is working out from the standpoint of businesses. The apartments are interesting because that’s where it becomes concrete.
Companies in the United States are completely asleep at the wheel with regard to this. They’re missing huge opportunities. I’m going to try to, for my fellow single brothers and sisters, talk to them because I think there’s an opportunity here. There’s a book that came out several years ago by Robert Putnam called Bowling Alone. It’s this thick book, and I’ve never fully liked the book in part because no one bowls alone. It already paints this negative picture of singles. In it, he laments the loss of civic engagement and blames the television largely for these people not participating in various organizations, Elks Clubs, political organizations, etc.
One of the things that are striking about it, and I looked deeply into this, is that singles are less at risk of this. Single people are more engaged in these kinds of endeavors than families are. In your book, you talk about the high degree of participation that Swedes have in various associations. It talks about the idea of two balls in the air. They live in their box in the sky, but they are involved in politics, interest organizations, or trade unions in and other places. This seems to be weaved into the culture.
I share your misgivings with Putnam’s fundamental thesis here because there’s not much in the way of empirical evidence. What we know of single funds, in general, is that they tend to be not only happier but also much more engaged, have more friends, spend more time with friends, get involved with associations, and so forth.
In Sweden, I work with people who do studies of civic engagement, civil society, association, life, and so forth. One pattern that’s obvious there is that the most intense period when people are in their family mode is when they have the least time for caring for people outside of the family. There’s an insularity when you go into this nuclear family mode. Whereas later on, people, when there’s a liberated, either through a divorce or their children growing up. They return to associational life.
There are a lot of reasons to be critical of a romantic view of the family because the evidence is simply not quite there. If we want to care about society at large, you point out the great value that singles provide to the broader social fabric of society. They are the ones who are out there, being active, doing things, and connecting people in a way much far more superior to nuclear family folks that tend to be anchored a little bit too much into their small family.
Let’s talk about dating, romance and relationships. What is that like? How does The Swedish Theory of Love apply to partnering up, dating, and relationships?
First of all, there’s no economic necessity, partnering up early or too early, or because you’re driven by some a need for that. You can make the free choices in a different way. This goes back to studies of European marriage patterns and family cultures. There’s always been a culture defined much less by broad clan-like family structures and by a much more individualistic tradition of late marriages and encouraging children to leave home early.
Living apart together also.
You have had that exactly. There are not a lot of stigmas attached to making these choices that may appear to be unconventional, in some sense, if your model is the family model. There is room to move. Having said that, I would still say that Swedes or I’m sometimes surprised here by the extent to which, nonetheless, we choose to live nuclear family scenarios. Let’s not exaggerate here the extent to which we are dealing with a hyper-individualistic culture. It’s more the terms under which people go into these relationships.
Some part of me misses it a little bit. I lived in New York for several years after leaving the West. One of the things I liked about New York was there was a certain irreverence with respect to the nuclear family. I knew a lot of people who never were married and never had kids. They were associated across both gender and age lines. In Sweden, sometimes I find that even though you have a free choice, people still choose to live in what looks like remarkably conventional types of households to me. The choices people make here still are driven by perhaps drives that are fairly universal, even when you’re not forced to it. People divorce and move on. It’s on the stuff that you and I have talked about, but the conventional choices are still made.
It’s interesting you mentioned New York. I feel like I’m bringing that New York culture into my world. I had an episode where I asked one of my guests, “Do you feel bad for married people?” No one ever asked that question, and we had a laugh over how we sometimes feel bad for our married friends that it’s the tough road. I’m bringing that to the West. I’m creating this multi-generational group of friends and support system. Also, this notion of not being embarrassed about being single. That is something that seems to be the case in Sweden, more so than in most places, is that singleness feels like a different stage in life. Not a less-than stage in life. I think that’s wonderful.
The last thing I want to ask you, and this is a little outside your expertise, Lars. I want you to give some advice. The Swedes are more unconventional. That’s an element of being solo. They’re not embarrassed about being single. They feel like complete individuals. That’s another element of being solo, in my opinion. Unfortunately, the people reading this can’t all move to Sweden, even though you’d be happy to have us, and we would fit in great. If you find yourself in any other country, which is less supportive, what advice do you have at this micro level for someone who wants to pursue having these two balls in the air?
As a historian and I often go back to the era in Sweden before we created the modern welfare state social contract that you and I have discussed. If you go back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, suites tended to be active in organizing at a social movement level. Associations became models right for what later on became society as a whole.
You play an important role here because you are clearly celebrating solar life, but you are doing it in a way that is attempting to enable other people and platforms for communication to enable that type of alternative lifestyle. You can also work ultimately politically to influence business and government to create opportunity structures and put more emphasis on legitimizing and enabling lifestyles based more on this fundamental idea that social life needs to have a voluntary aspect.
It is the role of our common institutions, both state and civil society, in the business world to promote and enable fuller freedom of choice. You need to both do this socially by uniting with people that are like-minded but also work politically. It doesn’t become simply another form of inward-looking type of organization.
I appreciate you saying that because I have not been focused on the political side of it with the exception of that one project that is getting started. I have been focused on the other side of it. I want to answer my own question and get your reaction to this. I talk about if you’re going to be solo, whether for now, or forever, and especially forever, you can’t play by the same rules that society gives you because it’s built for a family.
What it means is that you’re going to have to, especially with regard to your wealth, take better care of your financial situation because you may not have that other person as the hedge. Getting your spending under control, living a more simple life pursuing work that’s not only meaningful but is also going to be able to support you in a sense. You’re going to have to turn down American consumerism, and that allows you more choice.
The other one is that you need to find a team because the state isn’t going to take care of you and because your husband or wife isn’t going to take care of you. I use the term team. It’s a sports analogy. Developing better friendships and connecting to associations organizations, even religious ones, whatever that might be professional ones, where you can start to make connections and cross-generational connections to be able to support each other.
I’m starting to develop a plan in which I’m going to identify like-minded solos and convince them all to live in the same building or in the same community with me, and we create our own social contract, where we’re going to help take care of each other. I even want to share a dog amongst all of us. That’s going to require more effort and negotiation and not defaulting to what society says you ought to do. I happen to believe that having a family and having kids is a terrible plan for your older years because you can’t always know how that’s going to turn out.
For me, as a historian, what I see there historically is if you look at the 19th century in Sweden, the early 20th century, before we had state insurance schemes of different sorts. You had these on a more volunteer basis, mutual aid societies, insurance schemes, where people got together in society, which was full of risks at that point.
They created everything from savings banks to insurance schemes to mutual aid societies. Some of those still exist that were created in the United States and Sweden during this period. Self-help movements were very significant. This is still extremely relevant, particularly, for those who do not fit into whatever established institutions they are. That’s in line with what you were talking about.
The one thing I would guard against if you want to hear in my view, which comes from my having lived in the US near the 1970s, and the commune movement, is that I am sometimes a little bit suspicious of solutions that are too micro-ish. When you mentioned living together in a house, that’s when I started to get nervous because the realistic cynical experience of human relationships is that they are brittle. You cannot over-depend on them, even when they are voluntary.
A more formalized mutual aid society and insurance scheme, where you go in and protect each other, might be a safer bet because it’s a bit more formal at a slightly larger distance. That means that those actual ratios you have with your friends are not overinvested with those types of expectations. That would be my caveat to your otherwise beautiful scheme.
I appreciate it. I’m not set on doing it yet. It’s a useful note to think about how else I might design this world for myself. Lars, I said this to you on our initial call, but I’m going to say it here and put it into the record. I feel lucky I met you. I feel fortunate that you wrote this book. I’m heartened that there is a country that is serving as a model for the individual and the individual who read this blog. I’m greatly appreciative. Thank you.
Thank you. I enjoy talking to you.
- The Swedish Theory of Love
- Lars Trägårdh
- Single Insights, the Science of Solos
- Bowling Alone
About Lars Trägårdh
Lars Trägårdh is a historian who has mostly lived in the US since 1970, while maintaining his personal and professional ties to Sweden. After many years as entrepreneur and businessman, he returned to academic studies in 1986. He received his Ph.D. in history from UC Berkeley in 1993 after living and carrying out research for several years in both Germany and Sweden. He then took up at position teaching Modern European history at Barnard College, Columbia University, where he remained for ten years.
During his years in the US, he also served as a guest professor at the University of Linköping, teaching graduate courses, and he also conducted a research project at Södertörn University College, which resulted in the celebrated book – Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige (2006, pocket 2009, revised and extended edition 2015, German translation 2016) – co-written with Henrik Berggren.
In 2010 he returned to Sweden where he now serves as professor oh history and civil society studies at Ersta Sköndal Bräcke University College where he in recent years have focused on projects concerning state/civil society relations, individual right, the juridification of politics, the Nordic model and the Swedish social contract, and a comparative project on children’s rights regimes in Sweden, France, and the United States. He currently heads a major research project on social trust works that involves a large quantitative survey measuring variation and change in level of social trust and confidence in institutions in 36 local communities across Sweden, as well as historical and comparative analyses that rely on qualitative data.
Aside from his academic research and writing, he has establishing a role as a public commentator on Swedish and American politics and society, publishing regularly in Swedish print media and appearing frequently on Swedish radio and TV. Between 2011 and 2013 he was an independent member of the Commission on the Future of Sweden, headed by the then prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.