A daily bulletin of news & opinion

20 August 2012

I’ve just returned from a week’s trip to Sweden, further convinced that there are few places more pleasant to while away a balmy summer evening than Stockholm. Swedes come into their own in the summer sun – lithe, bronzed bodies with caramel hair – resulting in the perfect city with the perfect population.

And it’s a city that appears to be growing healthily: everyone in Stockholm has a pram. Babies rule. Even the shortest of stairways has metal ramps down one side for ease of scaling or descent with a Baby Bjorn double buggy. What’s striking, though, is that behind every pushchair, pram or papouse is a proud father; nine times out of 10, without the mother. The city is like one giant Athena poster – Adonises cradling small infants, everywhere.

Paternity leave is a Swedish institution; fathers can take up to 14 months off work for each newborn. It’s lauded as a way of ensuring that dads have sufficient time to bond with their babies. It also means husbands are on hand to take on their fair share of parenting duties, rather than leaving their wives to cope alone while the menfolk return to their jobs.

I’ve always marvelled from afar that this works so well, especially when compared with how old-fashioned and Victorian we seem in the UK with a meagre 14 days’ paternity leave. However, I’m starting to wonder if such a seemingly progressive, generous paternity-leave programme might itself be a little outdated.

I spent time with one man who has a 10-year-old architecture practice employing 20-odd people. He has three children and has spent almost as much time on paternity leave in the last five years as he has in the office; he told me this with an air of “How lucky am I?” Yet in the same breath he lamented that business is bad and commissions have been incredibly thin on the ground. I asked if he thought it might have something to do with the fact that he’s on near-permanent paternity leave. It’s better that his wife goes back to work sooner he told me, and this is also true for many of his friends. Stockholm is like a great big daddies club – “It’s such fun,” he said.

It works very well for women, but I wonder if it’s spawning a new generation of workshy men. How easy is it to pick up where you left off after so many months, especially in this financial climate? “Yes, it’s tough,” my architect conceded. “That’s why we’re all having so many children, so we can postpone the pain of returning to work,” he giggled.

Rather alarmingly, I think he was only half-joking. As the debate grows about whether Sweden’s welfare model is still sustainable, perhaps it’s time to pull the papas out of paternity leave a little sooner.


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