Single in Sweden

Following on from it’s puff piece about Geneva, the BBC has another odd article about the difficulties of dating in Sweden.  I’m going to make fun of it.

Dating in Sweden might conjure up dreamy images of candlelit dinners in minimalist Nordic apartments, or snowy hikes with well-toned nature lovers.

Or orgies with buxom blondes.

But international professionals — there are more than half a million foreign citizens of working age in Sweden according to national statistics — hoping to find a relationship face a challenge in a nation that boasts the highest proportion of singles in Europe.

Is there any country where finding a relationship isn’t a challenge?  Sure, Thailand and Russia are good for men, but for women?  I get the feeling this article is going to say as much about the people looking for a relationship as it does about Sweden.

But, behind the numbers is a cultural norm that almost outright promotes being single. Swedish cities are full of compact homes carefully designed for independent living. Even in the capital Stockholm, in the grip of a major housing shortage, it’s still more affordable to live alone than it is in many other hubs for global talent like London or San Francisco.

Do “international professionals” in London and San Francisco really go dating to share the bills?

For expats like Raquel Altoe, 34, the novelty of working in one of the most single societies on the planet has a distinct downside.

“I moved here three years ago, I’m still single and it’s a super-frustrating situation, because I love everything else about Sweden,” says the Brazilian, who works for a business research start-up in Stockholm and, like many thirtysomethings, has hopes of settling down.

She’s 34 and has hopes of settling down.  That’s nice, but I don’t think it’s being in Sweden that is the problem here.  See, most blokes settle down in their late twenties and early thirties.  At 34 she’s going to be looking in the 34-42 age range of available men, which means divorcees, players, and hopeless cases who either don’t know what they want or no woman wants them.  She’d face the exact same difficulties in any country, not just Sweden.  I hear the laments of single women in their 30s complaining about the dating options in Paris and London, asking where are all the men.  Answer: married to women who got their act together when they were 29.

“I have no trouble getting a first date,” she adds. “But finding something longer term is much harder here.”

She’s found Tinder, then.  Again, this says more about her than Sweden.

Sweden is frequently ranked among the most attractive locations in the world for expats, thanks to its high standard of living, flexible working culture and abundant nature.

Yeah, yeah.

Swedes are also the best in the world at speaking English as a second language, which helps provide a soft landing for fluent newcomers.

I’m surprised about this.  I have friends who’ve lived in Sweden and thought the Danes and Dutch spoke English better.  But anyway.

But a report released by Statistics Sweden in 2015 revealed that only one in four people who relocated to Sweden as singles had found a partner after five years.

Hmm.  The report is in Swedish and my name is not Olaf, but I’d be interested to see if this was the same for both men and women.  I have a sneaking suspicion this article might actually be about how hard it is for mid-career women to date in Sweden, not men.

The study concluded that economic migrants from other Nordic and EU countries were even less likely to get together with a Swede than those who’d fled conflict or moved for family reasons.

Uh-huh.  What’s the betting 99% of those fleeing conflict and marrying a Swede are men?  I bet there are not many Iraqi women refugees hooking up with Swedish men.

Dr David Schultz, an American psychotherapist who has lived in Sweden for 13 years, agrees that expat dating struggles may be tied to cultural differences that are broader than just the independent mind-set of Swedes.

“A lot of my clients struggle with socialising here, in general. Swedish people don’t tend to talk to strangers much in public areas like the subway or buses or the supermarket,” he explains. “So it may feel like a lonely society to a foreigner.”

For a start, if you’re going to a psychotherapist to discuss why you can’t get a date you’ve probably got issues that are unrelated to Sweden.  Secondly, how is this different from anywhere else?  Parisians won’t talk to you on the subway even if you’ve been lost down there for days and are near to death from starvation.

Schultz suggests that, although not all singles are unattached by choice, Swedes are also perhaps less conventional than other nationalities when it comes to relationships, thanks to “a more liberal society”.

“You can be with someone but not live together, marriage isn’t such a strong thing, you can have children and not be married. It’s a whole different culture [relative to many other countries] in some ways,” he says.

So Swedes like being single.  Okay.

The Nordic country’s strong emphasis on gender-equality leaves women much less likely to depend on men financially than in most places. The average age for a first marriage is 33 for women and 35.7 for men, according to Eurostat. (It’s 27 for women and 29 for men in the US by comparison.) Childcare is highly subsidised, making mothers less dependent on having a partner to pitch in for income. Sweden’s divorce rate is the highest in the EU.

So like in a lot of enlightened Western countries, Daddy Government has replaced the need for a woman to find (and hold onto) a man, and the men are increasingly just giving up on long term relationships.  The million dollar question is does this substitution bring about happiness?  Judging by articles bemoaning the lack of dating options and the amount these Nordics drink, I’d say not.  It’s going to be interesting when the kids move out, isn’t it?  Can you buy futures in cat sales?

“It’s very different for me, coming from a more macho culture,” says Altoe. “I have no problem splitting the bill, but it can be confusing. Should I be more assertive here? Should I make the first move? Or do I still wait for the guy to make the first move?”

You’re confused!  How do you think the men feel?

However Sweden’s more egalitarian norms do benefit many expats, including American divorcee Rachel Matchett, 36, who moved to Stockholm with her Bulgarian then-husband.

“We broke up [here] when my son was three and it was affordable for me to live alone in Sweden in a way it would not have been in the US, or in Japan, where we had lived previously,” says Matchett, who now has a boyfriend. She adds that the “practically free” day care is also a big plus for independent living.

You mean you might have had to work to keep the relationship together – like you did in less generous countries – rather than sponge off the taxpayer?  How does the three year old kid like your new boyfriend?  Sorry, but an expat professional using the term “practically free” day care alongside “independent living” grates somewhat.  Income tax in Sweden kicks in at 31% above $2,690 per year, i.e. there is almost no tax-free threshold.  I wonder what hospital cleaners working minimum wage think about being taxed in order to look after the offspring of an American and a Bulgarian?

Anyway, my guess is that none of this is unique to Sweden only the situation is exacerbated by a long-running government policy of removing the incentives for women to get married and stay that way.  I’d also guess that the problem is far more acute for women over 30 than men, despite the BBC wheeling out a coloured British man to balance out the article a bit (the other man mentioned, an Australian of 32, has found somebody).

That said, there might be another explanation which I heard from a Russian girl who lived in Stockholm for a while: Swedes are fucking weird!

Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.