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Sweden: successful reconciliation of work and family life

Swedish parents are among the EU’s most successful in balancing work and family responsibilities. Female and maternal employment rates are among the highest in the EU, and child poverty is among the lowest. The country’s family policy is aimed at supporting the dual-earner family model and ensuring the same rights and obligations regarding family and work for both women and men. Generous spending on family benefits, flexible leave and working hours for parents with young children and affordable, high-quality childcare are the main factors for success. The aim of the Swedish financial family policy is to contribute to improved conditions for good living standards for all families with children, increased freedom of choice and empowerment of parents, as well as to promote equality in parenthood between women and men.

Largest proportion of working mothers in the EU

At 73.1% in 2014, the employment rate of women was close to that of men (76.5%) and well above the Lisbon target for female employment (60%). Measured at 79.2% in 2014, the employment rate of mothers of children under six is the third highest in the EU. At the same time, at 1.89 children per woman in 2013, the fertility rate is relatively high compared with other EU countries.

A high proportion of women use flexible working arrangements. Female and male part-time employment rates stand at 38.3% and 15.1% respectively, compared to the EU averages of 32.8% for women and 9.9% for men. Women work on average five hours per week less than men, a smaller difference than elsewhere in the EU. At 15.2% in 2013, the gender pay gap  in Sweden is lower than the EU average of 16.3%.

Generous and flexible leave schemes

Sweden has a highly developed and flexible parental leave schemepdf that allows and encourages both parents to spend time with their children. The mother and the father are each entitled to up to 8 months of paid leave per child, which makes it possible to be on paid leave for a total of 16 months per child. Of this, 13 months are paid at 80% of the most recent income up to a ceiling of approximately 443,000 SEK (€51,100) per year in 2016. In order to strengthen the economy for households with low income the basic level of paid leave was raised as of 1st January 2016 to 250 SEK per day, the remaining three months are paid at a flat rate of 180 SEK (€21) per day.

For children born on or after 1 January 2014 a maximum of 96 days can be claimed for the child after the child’s fourth birthday. These days can however be claimed until the child reaches twelve years instead of eight years as under the previous rules.

Each parent has a personal, non-transferable entitlement to three months of paid parental benefit at the sickness-compensation level (of the total 16 months).  The remaining 10 months can be freely shared between parents. The number of non-transferrable months was increased from two months to three months as of the 1st of January 2016.The right to be absent from work full time is restricted to the child’s first 18 months. Thereafter parents who want to reduce working hours or be on full leave must use parental benefit days to ensure such a right to parental leave. Parents have the right to decrease their working time by up to 25% without using parental benefit days, until the child is eight years old or finishes the first year of school.

Despite the positive consequences of fathers’ involvement in childcare, the flexibility of the system in terms of who takes the leave, nevertheless results in the lion’s share of parental leave days being taken by mothers. Swedish fathers’ use of the total amount of parental benefit days is still considerably more than most EU Member States. Fathers used on average 96 days of parental benefit for children born in 2005, (mothers used on average 334 days). When the child turned eight and the right to use parental benefit ended, only ten percent of the children born in 2005 had a father that had not used a single day of parental benefit (for mothers the figure was four percent).

As an economic incentive for mothers and fathers to share childcare more equally the Swedish government introduced a ’Gender equality bonus’ in 2008. The bonus is linked to the take-up of parental benefit and it amounts to a maximum of 13,500 SEK (€1,570) per child.

The Swedish Government introduced a new rule into its social insurance scheme in 2010 to help single parents who fall ill and cannot look after their child. The rule allows another insured person (i.e. a person legally living and/or working in Sweden) who forgoes paid work to receive temporary parental benefit to look after the child.

As of 1st January 2012 it is possible for a child’s parents to obtain parental benefit at the same time for 30 days during the child's first year of life in order to increase the parents’ freedom of choice.

High spending on family benefits

At around 3.2% of GDP, financial benefits for children and families represent one of the highest shares in the EU (the 2012 EU average was 2.4% of GDP). Along with the high level of labour force participation, this is also seen as a major reason for low poverty among children. Sweden has one of the EU’s lowest child poverty rates (19.4% in 2012) and was among the top-rated nations for child well-being in the 2007 UNICEF reportpdf.

In addition to parental benefits, a range of financial measures have been introduced to reduce the financial burdens on parents raising children. They include:

  1. Pregnancy benefit payable for a maximum of 50 days at 80% of the mother’s most recent income to expectant mothers who are unable to work because of the physically demanding nature of their jobs;
  2. Temporary parental benefit paid at 80% of annual earnings for a sick child under the age of 12; 
  3. Child allowance amounting to SEK 1,050 (about €122) per month and per child with supplements for large families ranging from SEK 150 (about €17) for the second child to SEK 1250 (about €145) for the fifth and each additional child.

New provisions regarding the payment rules for child allowance entered into force on 1st March 2014. When parents have joint custody of a child, half of the child allowance is to be paid to each parent, if the parents have not reported who is to be the recipient. If the child resides alternately with both parents half of the child allowance is paid to each parent, if the parent who wants the benefit to be shared shows that it is probable that the child has an alternating residence. Today a majority of the benefits are paid to the mother, even if the child resides alternately with both parents, e.g. living every other week at each parent, which is a living arrangement which has become more common after a separation.  The occurrence of children alternating between both parents’ homes after a separation is increasing in Sweden, reaching numbers higher than 50% for children with recently divorced parents and for all children with separated parents a total of 35% (see enclosed report from Statistics Sweden with summary in English).

In order to increase family income the housing allowance for families with children was raised in both 2012 and 2014. Totally an investment of 1,7 billion SEK has been made. Housing allowance is a benefit for low-income families, which varies in level depending on household income. The amount received depends on income, housing costs, the size of the home and the number of children within the household. Individual income levels for both parents are subject to a ceiling, which in practice means that it is mostly lone parents who receive the housing allowance. Since more women than men are lone parents, it means in turn that more women than men receive it.

Affordable and high-quality universal childcare

Public childcare is guaranteed to all parents and it operates on a whole-day basis: most childcare facilities are open from 6.30 a.m. until 18.30 p.m. Pre-school is free for children aged between three and six for up to 15 hours per week. Parental fees are directly proportional to parents’ income and inversely proportional to the number of children in a family. The fee can be up to three percent of the family’s monthly income, but no more than 1,260 SEK (about €146) per month. The parental fees cover, on average, only 11% of the real cost of a place in pre-school which means that the cost for childcare is heavily subsidised.

As a result, 55% of children under three and 96% of children between three and six are enrolled in formal childcare. These figures are well above the EU Barcelona targets for childcare provision and the EU averages of 27% and 82% respectively. 

New reform regarding maintenance allowance

There is a need to give separated parents better conditions to reach civil law agreements of maintenance allowance for children. As of 1st April 2016 the Government will give the National Insurance Agency an expanded mandate to inform and support parents for them to be able to establish such agreements. Thus, full maintenance support – which is the advanced maintenance that the state provide if there is no civil law agreement between the parents – will no longer be advanced if the liable parent has paid the amount determined according to law, to the National Social Insurance Agency for at least six months in a row. If there are special reasons, however, maintenance support should still be provided. A civil law agreement on maintenance often means a significantly higher maintenance for the child. This is especially a fact for children living in economically disadvantaged households.

A new Authority on Family Law and Parental Support

Since 1st September 2015 the new Family Law and Parental Support Authority has been introduced in order to unify the responsibilities related to knowledge based work regarding family law issues within the Social Services, family counseling and parental support, as well as questions related to inter-country adoptions.

A new agreement on Psychiatry and Mental Health

Psychiatry and mental health for children has been one of the most important issues for the Government in the health care field for many years. The goal is to promote mental health, combating mental illness, strengthen early intervention for children suffering from mental illness and improve health and social care for people with extensive need for action. In December 2015 government decided to approve of an agreement concerning mental health on 845 million SEK (about 90.5 million €) between the government and the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR).

The information in the country profile was last updated in January 2016.