A Caring State?

Elin Peterson

Welfare State Retrenchment, the Effects on Women, and Feminist Responses in Sweden

About the book

From an international perspective, the Nordic model can easily be seen as an ideal welfare state. Additionally, more than any other welfare state model, the Nordic model is not just a label applied by welfare state analysts; it has also been used with pride by Nordic governments and citizens (Lister 2009). The striving for equality and the high degree of universalism have been regarded as proof of the superiority of the Nordic model (Anttonen 2002). The concept of universalism is associated with the development of comprehensive social insurance schemes and general access to education and healthcare (Anttonen et al. 2012). Another central aspect of Nordic universalism is the development of comprehensive publicly funded, mainly publicly provided, high-quality care services available to, and used by, citizens of all social groups (Vabø / Szebehely 2012).

In Sweden, the idea of universal service provision was brought into the public political discourse at the beginning of the 20th century. The Social Democratic Party (Sveriges Socialdemokratiska Arbetareparti, SAP) was the main force behind social reforms (Anttonen 2005). With the expansion of the welfare state, care services became a citizen right, closely connected to the promotion of both class solidarity and gender equality.

Care was effectively transformed from a private matter for families to a public matter for the state. Further, the process of de-familialisation facilitated the reconciliation of employment and care and increased women’s economic independence (e.g. Ulmanen 2017a). This development towards universalism explains why the Swedish – and Nordic – welfare state has come to be defined as “caring” (Leira / Saraceno 2006; Daly 2001) and “women-friendly” (Hernes 1987).

Policy reforms and welfare state retrenchment in recent decades challenge these ideas. Overall, there has been a shift in care policies, away from egalitarian ideals and towards a focus on freedom of choice (Peterson / Brodin 2021). The process of care “going public” has to a certain extent been reversed by welfare state cutbacks. For example, a process of re-familialisation is evident in care for older people and privately funded help has increased among more affluent older adults (Ulmanen / Szebehely 2015).

The Swedish welfare state has indeed gone through far-reaching changes inspired by the global wave of New Public Management (NPM), which has strongly reshaped the organisation and provision of care. In order to increase efficiency and productivity, market-inspired logics have been introduced and public organisations have become more businesslike. In this vein, there has been an increasing reliance on the market and a focus on competition between public and private providers (Szebehely / Trydegård 2012). Care work in the eldercare sector has become increasingly governed by detailed regulations, and control has been strengthened. Coinciding with retrenchment, this has resulted in increased workloads, work intensity and stress among care workers (e.g. Stranz / Szebehely 2018). Such problems have intensified with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Women are particularly affected by the changing conditions of care work since care work is a female-dominated occupation, in Sweden as in other countries. Overall, these developments in the Swedish welfare state shape women’s lives, as users of care services, unpaid family carers and paid care workers.

The changes in care-related policies and practices have occurred in a context of increasing economic inequalities. Although starting from an initially low level, economic inequality has increased faster in Sweden than in most countries (SOU 2020). Income distribution has gone back to the levels of the 1940s, and wealth distribution has worsened even more, resulting in the most uneven pattern in Western Europe. The pension system has produced a higher degree of relative poverty among Swedish pensioners than the EU average (Therborn 2018), and the differences in relative poverty between older women and older men are among the greatest in the OECD. In addition, the foreign-born and the oldest-old are particularly vulnerable to poverty (NBHW 2020a).

While inequalities are increasing, important shifts have occurred in the perception of social rights and paid work. Like the other Nordic countries, Sweden has historically been highly work-oriented, but the workfare element of the Swedish welfare state has become stronger. This has resulted in “an increased requirement to take up wage labour at whatever pay is offered” (Hort 2014, quoted in Nordberg 2019: 56). Neoliberal discourses have legitimised a shift in focus from citizen rights to citizens’ obligations (Dahlstedt / Neergaard 2019). Additionally, a cost discourse has become prevalent in social policy (e.g. disability care policy), focusing on what can be afforded rather than on social rights (Norberg 2019). The growing inequalities, the focus on citizens’ obligations and the cost discourse shape the lives of many women in vulnerable positions, for example those in precarious work or unemployment, living with disability or affected by illness.

Without a doubt, the Swedish welfare state has many strengths, and women and men generally benefit from universal services and citizen rights. Nevertheless, the idea of Sweden as a women-friendly and caring welfare state can be, and has been, questioned. When we take intersecting inequalities and vulnerability as the starting point, the harmful effects of welfare reforms and retrenchment become especially visible. Following from this, the present report adopts a critical approach as it examines welfare state change and the effects on women and gender equality in Sweden.

About the author

Elin Peterson holds a PhD in Political Science from the Complutense University of Madrid, and currently works as a researcher in the Department of Social Work at Stockholm University. She has extensive experience in qualitative research on gender equality and care-related policies in different European contexts. Her recent research explores the marketisation of eldercare in Sweden, and its connections to the valuation of care work and social inequalities. Her work has been published in the International Journal of Care and Caring, Ageing & Society, Gender, Work & Organization and NORA – Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research.


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