Sweden’s Immigrants – Paradise Lost?

A dear American friend sent me an article not long ago about immigrants in Sweden. It captured the essence of many immigrants I know or have spoken with – an experience in stark contrast to the pleasant life enjoyed by most Swedes.

This friend is married to a Swedish woman and lives in the USA.  If he once considered moving to Sweden, I doubt it would ever happen now after hearing and reading over the years about what he could expect. Since he rarely sends me anything, I knew the article hit a nerve.

The article was informative yet provided no surprises for me as I have lived and learned in Sweden for nearly 8 years – first in Stockholm and now in a smaller town in southern Sweden. My experience after 5 years can be found on the following link.


Since arriving in 2004, I’ve made it a priority to speak to people I’ve encountered (including almost every immigrant) on my frequent travels around Sweden.  It’s been a wonderful way to learn more about the culture from Swedes and the challenges from immigrants.

The immigrants who spoke with me came from various countries. Some were friends and clients while others were academics entrepreneurs, business people or strangers. A significant portion of stories I heard came from taxi drivers.

Interestingly, most were underemployed or unemployed. “Frozen” out of the job market was something the aforementioned article highlighted although it’s old news to me. Before I arrived in Sweden, I was fortunate to be told how difficult the job market would be.

Most immigrants were eager to speak with me. I got the sense that some never had the chance to “exhale” and tell their story to a welcoming ear. The experiences were vastly different and often compelling although eerily similar in two ways:

1)      The majority were glad and thankful that they had a comfortable life in Sweden – an existence most confessed would be more challenging (and in some cases harsh) if they had remained in their birth countries.

2)      Whether they had lived in Sweden for 2, 10 or 30 years, most were satisfied with life yet not happy.

The dismay about job conditions for immigrants that I mentioned earlier came from my conversations with ex-pats in Sweden before my wife and I moved here. EACH person told me similar stories about how hard it would be to obtain quality employment along with other cultural challenges. Satisfaction reigned supreme in their voices about Sweden not happiness.

Due to their forthright nature, I was prepared for the obstacles I would face.  That made my transition much easier.  I’ve known others who were told the opposite (easy to find a job) before moving although they spoke with Swedes beforehand not immigrants. You can imagine their disappointment when they thought it would be a “Cinderella” work experience.

There are exceptions to the rule in my inner circle – immigrants who are happy in Sweden although I hope that number will increase in future years. Most of the happy ones are blessed to have quality jobs and are very positive.

Fortunately, I’m happy.  I was able to find that rare employer willing to judge me on my merits and not the fact that I’m not Swedish. Before I landed my job, it was tough on me as there were many jobs I was interested in yet never had the opportunity to have an interview  Despite my tough beginning years in Sweden, I’m grateful for my lovely life.

Here’s one of my interview experiences before I moved to Sweden:

I was excited even though I had those ex-pat voices spinning in my head. I had the interview when my wife and I visited one month before our move. It was pleasant, enjoyable and obvious that I was the most qualified candidate. The VD (CEO) of this very well known organization said after, “You have more experience than all of the other six candidates combined”, which was nice to hear. He later said, “I can’t hire you because the employees wouldn’t be comfortable with a non-Swedish speaker”.  Keep in mind that everyone spoke English. That was a bitter pill to swallow as I could have helped them immensely despite the language discomfort but they were more concerned with what I call “Comfort over Improvement” in hiring; something that occurs far too often here in regards to employing foreigners.

Life is VERY good for a majority of the people living in Sweden – a Paradise especially if one compares it with other parts of the world. Our economy is strong and we are the envy of the business world due to our strong recovery from the financial crises.

For many immigrants, the word “Paradise” would never enter into the conversation if they were describing their life in Sweden.

A few weeks back,  I was talking to a  intelligent immigrant taxi driver (9 years here) who was fighting the tears as he spoke of his journey. He informed me of his insane monthly hours and the meager pay he received for his driving efforts – shocking to say the least. According to him, it was the only job he was able to get.

Other malicious things flowed out of his mouth as well – words that were frighteningly harsh. He’s a bitter man and displayed a rage I had never seen before; a rage that should worry Sweden.

After our 15 minute conversation, he said to me, “all of the immigrants in Sweden are strangers. Some are treated better as I am sure you are coming from the USA or those from the UK. People like me (Middle East) or Muslims have a much tougher road to navigate. But, remember, we are all strangers.”

Let’s hope we can all come closer together in future years as Sweden has so many positives (i.e. a great place to raise kids, safe, beautiful nature) although the black eye will always be present as long as qualified immigrants don’t have the chance to compete for jobs or feel as if they are “Strangers in Paradise”.

Happy Gswede Sunday!

A moment of Paradise. (lovely photo by friend Patrick)


Anonymous said...

Learning the language is key. Despite Swedes being fluent in English, knowing Swedish is a must. I could not hire someone who did not speak Swedish as that employee would be too limited. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

great article and it's a serious problem that needs to be addressed

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the first comment. Learning the language of the country you live in must be a priority, even if as you see it "everyone speaks English". The situation is different if you come as an expat, as in other countries. I could not either hire someone to my oeganization who didnt speak Swedish, but have recently hired an immigrant (speaking Swedish). It goes both ways.

Anonymous said...

October 10 Anonymous:

What if you had a candidate who was FAR MORE experienced and quaified than all the other candidates but was new in Sweden so he/she didn't learn the language yet. (like in th article)

I guess you wouldn't hire he/she just because of language discomfort even though he/she could help improve your company and was the best qualified? And would probably learn Swedish quickly in an all Swedish atmosphere.

But if he/she came as an ex-pat (also best qualified), that would be okay and you would hire them even though they might never speak Swedish since they are an ex-pat?

Wow. Please explain that logic.

Anonymous said...

Response to today's Anonymous beginning with "I have to agree" -

That's just one of the many excuses that have no merit since it's a tax write off for companies to get private tutoring in Swedish for non-Swedes and without gainful employment one's grasp of the language will be limited.

That's without even factoring the skill set the person brings to the table, job wise. It's this type of ignorance that perpetuates this very problem.

Anonymous said...

I am a Swede by many many generations and I feel ashamed of my country and how we treat each other. I have expanded my job search globally and will gladly move somewhere else. I have more than a decade of expertise in my field, but I'm being looked upon as a possible threat. So it seems a newbie is more interesting for the sake of peace at the office. "Just do as you're told."

This is no solution, but honestly, I'm too tired of dealing with the comfortable people unable to share.

Can't imagine how frustrating it would be to add on sexism and racism to the equation. Which everyone knows exists, but no one wants to truly address.

Anonymous said...

In my nearly 8 years in Sweden, I've learned the following:
1. You HAVE to learn Swedish. Good Swedish, not crappy horrible accent Swedish.
2. The LONGER you are here, the more leeway you are given - in other words, the more likely you are to keep staying, in their eyes.
3. Hiring ANYONE, immigrant or not, is an investment and commitment - this is much more the case in Sweden given labor laws, parental leave, etc. Remember, Swedish companies CANNOT lower your salary - EVER! And once you pass 6 months, it's hard to shed staff.
4. There are some good ways to "break in" to the "real" or local job pool:
a. Study at a good Swedish school
b. Start in consulting to build your CV locally, even if you are working in English
c. Build your contact network
d. Work with headhunters

In my experience, it takes a little while to rise to the same level as Swedes for most job interview processes, but EVENTUALLY your background actually gives you a LEG UP on the competition. Yes, that's right - in my experience, being a well-educated foreigner who speaks native English and fluent Swedish, is actually advantageous compared not only to other immigrants, but even Swedes.

There are many companies where senior management is diverse, especially within industry and to a lesser degree in finance or other services.

Finally, given the job market today in say the US, or Spain, or Ireland, I'm not sure it isn't significantly to GET, KEEP, and reap significant quality of life benefits from a job in Sweden, that virtually anywhere else.

Now, the taxes are a different story...